Pass or fail

The angst of parenting without a report card 

I start each summer break with every intention of creating a rich, nurturing, educational environment for my children for the three months school is out. I imagine us gathered around the kitchen table, my kids scribbling furiously in the pages of their math and language arts workbooks while I peer over their shoulders, beaming with pride when my 8-year-old successfully determines the square root of 497. “Well done, I’m so proud of you,” imaginary me says, then, “Enjoy these healthy cookies I just baked,” as I gesture to a plate piled with steaming baked goods on the counter.

This fantasy takes me as far as ordering workbooks and paying for expedited shipping. But the second the packages arrive I’m snapped back to reality where imaginary me does not exist, only real me does, and real me does not want to spend her precious summer hours forcing kids to solve math problems any more than her kids want to be forced to spend their precious summer hours solving math problems. Especially when those math problems won’t even be graded by an actual teacher.

I don’t know what specific psychological illness I have, but my primary symptom is an unwillingness to do anything if it’s not being evaluated by an authority figure.

I’m not always expecting a letter grade, per se, though that would be ideal. I am, however, expecting some sort of validation, a pass or fail at least, from the nearest person with perceived authority in any given place or interaction. I show up to salon appointments with my hair done so my stylist thinks I’m doing a good job with his work out in the world. I floss before dentist appointments, often for the first time in a year, just to get a “good job” from the hygienist. I’ve stopped using budgeting apps because I’m embarrassed by what the algorithms must think of my overspending in the restaurant category every month.

If I had to guess, a therapist would tell me I have some sort of arrested development disorder, though I would never tell my therapist about this flaw of mine because I want to get an A in therapy.

If I had to guess, a therapist would tell me I have some sort of arrested development disorder, though I would never tell my therapist about this flaw of mine because I want to get an A in therapy.

Regrettably, this thirst for affirmation has extended to my children’s lives as well as my own. I’m always looking to their tennis coaches, piano instructors and Sunday school teachers to know not only how my child is performing, but by very unhealthy extension, how I’m performing, too. Have my kids perfected their backswing? Are they practicing enough scales? Do they know the difference between testaments old and new? I need to know what grade I deserve as a parent, and I need to get that knowledge from the people in charge. 

This began, I believe, when the nurses handed me a literal report card to fill out as we headed home with our first baby. I was instructed to mark the times and durations of feedings, the frequency of diaper changes and the number of hours we all slept. Then, at our first visit to the pediatrician, the doctor evaluated the sheet I had dutifully completed and evaluated my very first parenting efforts. Though I was not awarded letter grades (again, I wish), I read between the sweet encouragement from the pediatrician and determined I had received an A for feeding her enough and swaddling her properly, and C for the diaper rash because I had failed to change her diapers promptly enough.

I was disappointed and confused when we left the appointment without a fresh card to grade the rest of my kid’s childhood. And I’ve been confused ever since. How am I to know how I’m performing if I’m not receiving constant, quantifiable feedback?

I’ll never forget the morning when my oldest daughter walked into our neighborhood elementary school for her first day of kindergarten. I was anxious for all the reasons any parent has to be anxious when their children go off to school —  fear for her safety, concern that she wouldn’t make friends, and worry that she wouldn’t eat the carrots or drink the juice packed in her lunch. But I was also anxious because she would be reflecting all my parenting efforts for the last five years, and I would not be there to see how her teacher would respond to the results of those efforts. I had no idea if I was going to pass or fail in the eyes of my child’s educator. It was an abrupt and jarring adjustment when I lost that level of control.

But if the last 11 years have taught me anything, it’s that I never really had control to begin with. To my dismay and slight relief, I’ve learned parenting is more complicated than simply inputting proper care and getting an expected product in return, like a plant or Tamagotchi, or the newborn whose life can be evaluated on feeding, changing and sleeping worksheets. As that newborn and two subsequent children have grown, I’ve learned, again to my dismay but also delight, that children can not be scored. That kids are, in fact, their own unique individuals with their own internal lives, temperaments, likes and dislikes.

And the one dislike they all have in common is doing math and language arts workbooks in the summertime.

They dislike it so much that it takes multiple reminders, often met with great resistance, to even get them to open the workbooks. Then triple the reminders to get one problem finished. And after nine months of fighting this battle to get real homework done during the school year —  the homework that is actually graded and therefore counts — we’re all a little tired.

If the last 11 years have taught me anything, it’s that I never really had control to begin with. To my dismay and slight relief, I’ve learned parenting is more complicated than simply inputting proper care and getting an expected product in return

So every year I give up my dreams of providing a rich, nurturing, educational environment and instead try and limit screen time to just the edge of total brain rot, buy enough ramen and mac and cheese packets to keep the snack requests at bay, and a couple of times a week yell, “go read for a minute.” Because what’s the point of trying any harder if it won’t be reflected on my, I mean their, permanent records?

But now it’s time to return to school and I’m realizing that my parenting efforts, or more accurately lack thereof, during the summer might actually matter once my kids get back in the classroom. We’re about to start the school year with hair unstyled and teeth unflossed. I don’t foresee any “good jobs” at our back-to-school nights or fall parent-teacher conferences. 

So now I’m trying to make up for lost time. Doing whatever extra credit I can at the last second to make the grade. I mean, help my children make the grade. 

I’m quizzing them on addition and subtraction as we drive to and from the pool. I’m making them practice their handwriting on the back patio with sidewalk chalk. But I know it’s too late. We can’t cram three months’ worth of learning into a week. I’m going to have to accept a parenting B minus, at best. Maybe a C plus.

I know that’s the grade I deserve, and probably the one I need. A grade that will remind me that, much to my chagrin, parenting will never be perfect and that not all of my efforts can be reflected in an A, B, or C, or even a pass or fail.

It’s impossible to grade the long summer nights we spent together in the backyard eating the terrible popsicles my 8-year-old made out of just lemons and water and watching the sunset. There’s no metric to evaluate the road trip we took where we played “Guess the Animal” to and from southern Utah and my 4-year-old made us guess giraffe every time it was his turn. No report card can capture the hours my 11-year-old spent making an intricately-sketched comic strip about a preteen female explorer about to enter middle school. We watched every “Mission Impossible” movie, made ice cream, grew tomatoes, took our dog on long walks, threw water balloons and hiked the hills near our home together, and there’s just no way to grade any of those memories.

But if there were, I’d get an A.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.