When my son’s very first progress report arrived in his blue plastic take-home folder halfway through the first quarter of kindergarten, I glanced at it and saw check marks in the first column of the chart all the way down the page. Assuming that checks in the first column meant he was performing at the highest levels in behavior and academics these few short weeks into his formal schooling, I was surprised at how pleased I felt.
Then I looked more closely at the progress report and realized that the chart was actually designed to cover progress reports for all four quarters of the school year, so the check marks in the first column noted his performance only for this first quarter progress report. Above the chart was the key to its symbols. A check mark meant “usually/on target,” whereas a plus sign indicated “always/exceeds expectations.”
My immediate reaction was concern. I thought, Oh! He isn’t exceeding expectations in anything? Maybe I need to email the teacher to set up a time to chat about what’s going on. I bet he’s too distracted. Or not paying attention. Or bored. Maybe he’s acting up and not learning.
This, despite all my efforts since before he was even born to parent him in a way that fosters intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset. No punishments or rewards. Praising hard work and effort rather than smarts or innate talent. Steering clear of too many classes and activities in order to allow room for unstructured play. I even investigated unschooling, because I was so afraid that as soon as he entered regular school, his natural curiosity and imagination would be squelched and replaced by a new love for external rewards and good grades.
As he entered kindergarten, I began preparing myself for how to talk with him about things like standardized tests and grades. I wanted him to know that in our family, external evaluations and rewards don’t matter as long as you're doing your best and being a good citizen of your school, your community, and your world.
And then came that first progress report. And I was stunned to find myself right back in my old way of thinking, the same way of thinking that propelled me through 13 years of school, four years of college, and three years of law school. In front of me was a piece of paper telling me that my son was doing just fine, usually meeting expectations, and on target for what he's supposed to be learning and doing, and my immediate reaction was one of concern.
I’ve struggled my entire life with feeling good enough. I performed at the highest levels throughout my own schooling, received excellent reviews of my work in several different jobs and careers, and heard warm sentiments of love and support from others. Yet despite all of this evidence to the contrary, I struggle to feel confident that I'm meeting expectations – let alone exceeding them – in any of the roles I've taken on.
Like many high-achieving women, I’ve spent most of my life waiting for someone to pull back the curtain and reveal the tiny, ineffectual woman behind the booming voice.
I have no recollection of my parents overtly pressuring me to excel in school or in life, but as the youngest of four in a family where neither of my parents graduated from college and none of my siblings graduated from high school, I internalized at a young age a message that I was somehow gifted. I was supposed to do something extraordinary with that gift. My parents joked often that I would become the first female president of the United States.
Once I began school, I was driven almost exclusively by my desire to excel, to get the best grades, to be the best at everything I did. And when, inevitably, I failed to be the best at everything – I never got a lead in any play I auditioned for; I was (and still am) a mediocre athlete; I was a wholly uninspiring leader of several different organizations – I internalized a message that I just wasn’t good at certain things.
So I stopped trying certain things. Even in college and law school, where being a student was supposed to be one thing I was consistently good at, I avoided taking certain classes because I feared getting low grades in them and ultimately confirming what I – and only I – already knew about myself: that I was not as smart as everyone thought I was.
And after some initial success when I decided to pursue a career as a writer, a long series of rejections eventually wore me down. Without a lot of publications to reward me, I began to believe that I’d never be truly good at writing, either.
No growth mindset: “I have no talent, and I’ll never get better at this.”
No intrinsic motivation: “This isn’t worth writing if no one wants to publish it.”
Fear of failure: “No one will want to read this.”
Never feeling good enough: “If you don’t ultimately publish a book, none of this even matters.”
For all of my son’s young life, I’ve been determined to avoid saddling him with these same inhibitions, especially because I know how hard it is to shrug them off. I want him always to feel good enough and worthy of love and respect regardless of what he ultimately achieves. I’ve been as proactive as I can, and I agonized over what would happen to him when he entered regular school, where the whole system is based on rewards and external motivators.
But when that first progress report came, I realized that it’s not the schools I need to worry about. It’s me. I can wax philosophical all day long about how I don’t care if my kids ever excel at anything as long as they work hard and are kind and happy. But none of that means anything if I can’t stop the old record playing in my own head, the one that keeps saying that I'm not good enough unless someone or something else says I am the best.
I didn’t email my son’s teacher. I tucked the progress report in his memory box as a reminder that good enough is good enough. Not so much for him, but for me.