Today is Report Card Day. It is a day that requires capital letters, and it’s own place on the calendar—highlighted in yellow, maybe circled in purple. For my daughter, today is a good day. For me, it is a day that—as a girl—filled me with apprehension, and made my sisters and I find one another in school to share our anxiety and fears about going home. For my mother, it was a day to dread, one that she wished she could erase from the calendar. Yet, for my father, it was day to come home early from work, to have dinner with all of us together—he at the head of the table with my mother to the right, and all of us sitting around him, silently waiting for the moment that he called us back to the table one by one. He would start in birth order, so I was second in line. It’s not that he really yelled, he just stared at the report card, unable to speak for moments at a time until he would force out the words “Why a B in Science? What were you doing these last two months?” It was worse if the grade was anything below a B, then the overwhelming thoughts of “I am a failure,” “I will never do well,” “I’m just not smart” would set in, and tears would come to my eyes, but fear of further humiliation would stop them from rolling down my face. I don’t know what my father hoped for in the moment, the first time he saw that marking period’s grades, but inevitably each one of us always found a way to disappoint him. I know that this sounds dramatic, and possibly slightly overblown in its description, but this moment—sitting down with my father one-on-one on Report Card Day—was a defining moment in my life, in all of our lives. It was at those times that I felt that my father’s love and acceptance of me were tied to the number of A’s he saw on my report card, and I ultimately grew to believe that I would never be good enough.
When I became a parent, I was consumed by the fear that I would somehow inadvertently turn into my father on Report Card Day. I was haunted by the question: How do you set expectations for your children, and then on the day that their success is measured, not show your disappointment if they don’t do as well as you had hoped? Fortunately, my daughter didn’t start to get letter grades until 4th grade, so I had a few years to prepare myself. During that time, I did one fundamental thing differently than my father—I paid attention to her. It wasn’t difficult to do—I asked her about what she was learning, I knew it when there was something she didn’t understand and then worked on it with her, and I quizzed her to prepare for tests. So, when she finally got a report card with actual letter grades, I had a moment of clarity—I had found my answer. The report card held no surprises for me, I had seen every test, read every paper, checked each homework assignment, all while never making her feel that she couldn’t do it, never criticizing or losing patience. That first report card was really for me, as her parent, to show me how well I did (or didn’t do) supporting her throughout the school year. Now, I write “Report Card Day” on our calendar—ours in green—but it is day to look forward to, a day to celebrate my daughter’s success . . . and maybe to celebrate a little of my own.
My advice to my daughter is something that I tell her all the time: There will always be things that are difficult to understand—subjects that might seem impossible to learn—so don’t be afraid to ask for help, and never let your own self-worth be equal to a number found on a report card.