Progress reporting

I began writing today’s blog post about the article “When did being an average student become a bad thing?” “Average” is often a pejorative term in our culture, nowhere more so than for college-bound high school students. It was shaping up to be a reassuring reminder that we don’t need our kids relentlessly achieving in all areas, all the time. Plenty of successful people in a variety of disciplines report being “average” students in high school. Who they are at 16 isn’t who they’ll be for life. Grades and test scores don’t mean that much in the long run. Let’s all try to relax a little bit.

And then the email from my son’s school arrived with the subject line, “Winter Progress Report.”

I don’t usually keep email open while I write (this was a good reminder why). But as soon as I saw those words, “progress report,” I abandoned the blog writing and anxiously opened the email. There’s a strange sense of foreboding around a formal document describing your child’s “progress.” What if he isn’t progressing like he should be? What if he’s behind? How will we get him caught up?

My son is three. He’s in preschool.

That preemptive worry didn’t last long. Of course, the progress report contained lots of descriptions like, “He enjoys working with glue, tape, and rubber stamps as he plays at the art table,” and “He is proud of his physical accomplishments, such as sliding down the pole.” That’s appropriate for a preschooler. We don’t need him doing long division or preparing for the SAT (oh, the horror). But that fleeting moment of anxiety that came when opening a progress report, especially while encouraging other parents to resist over-focusing on their kids’ achievements relative to other kids, reminded me what this must be like as our kids get older.

Sure, there are some very real indicators a teacher or school could share with a parent that would in fact be cause for concern. Difficulties learning or socializing, emotional troubles, any real challenge for which the kid—not the parent or the report card—would benefit from addressing are worth taking seriously.

But most grades, test scores, and other metrics so common in school are imperfect, incomplete snapshots of our kids. Yes, as parents, we should pay attention to them. We should talk with our kids about them, especially as a way to celebrate and encourage strengths rather than polishing perceived weaknesses. But we must remember that most of those measurements, who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s average, are arbitrary in retrospect and carry little to no weight in the future.

I acknowledged the irony of my progress report email. Then I smiled, imagined my kid “playing fire fighters and construction” (yep—that’s in the progress report), and got back to work. I hope we can all do something similar the next time a progress report arrives.