A+ Advice for Parents

Q: We have two girls, one in sixth grade and the other in fourth. The older one excels in all subjects. The younger one is more average. My spouse and I argue about how much we should push her to get better grades. I want her to have higher expectations so she gets into a good college. My spouse says, "Why pressure her?" What do you think?

A: I agree with your spouse. Too many parents think the road to college starts in preschool and that every grade along the way counts.

But as Paul Tough explained in "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character" (Mariner Books, 2013), it's the traits and habits of mind that children form in elementary school -- self-control, goal-orientation, responsibility, persistence and resilience -- that matter most later on.

"I can usually predict which of my fifth-grade students will succeed in high school -- not by their grades, but by how they assume responsibility for their own learning," says San Jose, California, educator Bill Laraway. "Too often, parents focus only on grades and lose sight of how important social interaction and networking play in academic performance."

Kyle Redford, a teacher at Marin Country Day in Corte Madera, California, writes in a blog post for Education Week that she has seen a definite shift in parental attitude. "Parents have gone from understanding that children have innate strengths and challenges to believing that their children should be strong in all areas," she says. "This has led to a proliferation of tutors hired to give students an edge with any subject that doesn't come easy."

Assuming that your daughter is working to her potential, that she has no learning difficulties to be addressed, and that she's developing the self-management and study skills essential to becoming a successful student, embrace her accomplishments, advises Laraway.

"And," he emphasizes, "never compare her performance unfavorably to her sister's."

Accepting a child's academic shortcomings is sometimes tough, concedes Redford. "How much struggle or challenge should we accept?" she writes. "When do we allow a student to be satisfactory at a skill? How do we comfortably define satisfactory? If we accept average performance, are we giving up on the student, or, worse yet, applying a 'fixed mindset' when considering their potential and possibilities?"

Redford, who is also the education editor for the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, encourages teachers to have these "messy but important" talks with parents.

When we push students to do better, she says, we need to ask at what cost.

"Children only have so much time in a day," Redford explains. "There is definitely a point of diminishing returns when it comes to spending time addressing less-than-perfect academic areas."

Melissa Chen, a college consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area, tells high school students to forget perfection. In a piece for The Huffington Post, she says that if students can save hours by earning B's instead of A's in their hardest classes, they should. With the time gained, they should find out what "their true hobbies are, to develop passions and intellectual curiosities."

This makes them more interesting, "which can help their (college) application stand out in a crowd," adds Chen. "Taking a step back has obvious intrinsic benefits, too, which will last much longer than any given application cycle."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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