A Word I Wish I’d Said Less

Regrets on the verge of dropping off my youngest at college

kelly corrigan

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Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

One day not so many years ago, I read two long articles, back to back, on the role parents play in their children’s stress and success and I made a decision. When they came through the kitchen door that afternoon, I said, “Girls, I have a major announcement.” They looked alarmed. “I no long want to see or discuss your grades.” Georgia wanted to know what I meant, exactly. Claire was sure it was a trick. [I am not a casual parent. I know what I want for my kids and I’m both serious and direct about my expectations.]

“If,” I said, “you want to talk about a book you’re reading or a paper you’re writing or ideas of any size or shape, I’m all in — but grades and grading scales and whatever you need to get on the final to get whatever grade you’re trying to get for the semester? That stuff is off limits.” Based on the position of their eyebrows, I felt compelled to go on. “Dad and I are not registering for Infinite Campus or Schoology. We won’t be checking your assignments or test scores online. Your grades are your deal.”

Habits are notoriously hard to break and grade fixation is no exception. Talking about school without talking about grades required new conversations, which is to say new questions. All my chatty standbys — how was the math test? Is there extra credit? How long is your paper supposed to be? — were pointing us in the wrong direction. The intersection between the answers to these questions and my vision for my kids is the null set. One of my new conversation starters became Who did you eat lunch with? Another: What surprised you today? When my conversational kindling wouldn’t catch, I tried doing something together, like watching Kate McKinnon skits online, playing Rummikub or rearranging their bedroom furniture. On a very good day, say once a year, we might put on music and fold clothes.

Even with this excellent first step toward redefining our goals for our kids, we made huge mistakes, the biggest of which came down to overemphasis. My husband and I talked about college way more than was useful. Our interest was flagrant. Even though I knew that high schools kids everywhere have 10x the information they need. Even though I knew that many of my girls’ friends had older siblings in college…

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kelly corrigan

New York Times bestselling author, host of new podcast: Kelly Corrigan Wonders and PBS show: Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan