When All A's Isn't Good Enough

"My Kid Is an Honor Student," "My Kid Is Student of the Month," "My Kid Is Number One In His Class." We've all seen these bumper stickers and heard these bragging words. I've never seen a bumper sticker that reads, "My Kid Has a Wonderful Imagination," "My Kid Is Really Nice," or "My Kid Has Good Table Manners." If this is how kids get approval from their parents, is it any wonder that academic stress and cheating are rampant today?

I feel there's more to this than parents being proud of their children. The unstated end to the sentence, "My kid is number one in his class" is, "And yours isn't."

Obviously, some parents identify too much with their children's successes. I guess their logic is, "If my kid gets all A's and is valedictorian, that must mean that I'm smart and I've been doing something right." I don't know about that. If all you can boast about is your child's success, what's not working out in your own life? Where is that sticker on your kid's bike that reads, "My parents are great at their jobs?"

Some parents are obsessed with their kids' grade-point averages, and that title of valedictorian. Students (and their parents) will do whatever they have to do to raise their grade point average a tenth of a point. One Michigan high schooler has sued his school district because he feels one of his A's should be an A-plus. With honors and advanced placement courses, kids can have higher than an A average now. Grade inflation has kept up with financial inflation, so a 2003 A is not worth as much as a 1985 A was. Students who have "only" a 3.8 average are looked down upon with pity and considered doomed to spend their entire adulthood asking questions like, "Do you want fries with that?"

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says this fixation with being Number One comes from the feeling "that life is a race... and that if you don't get into Harvard, or Stanford, you won't have any life chances." If that's what parents believe, they might as well tell their little Billy to pack it in once he can't stack his blocks as fast as little Johnny.

To get away from all this "who's number one?" wrangling, some high schools are eliminating exact number ranks and doing away with titles like valedictorian. Instead, they have begun to honor the top five percent of the class equally. All those students distinguished themselves academically, so who cares if one of them has a grade point average a few thousandths of a point higher than the others?

Some parents care, that's who. Parents unhappy with this new system are suing schools and school districts because they think their child deserves the special recognition of being called "valedictorian" or of being ranked Number One or Number Eight. How meaningful will this honor be if the kid has to go to court to receive it?

If these suits are successful, look for parents to start suing when their kids are younger. Soon, the Supreme Court may hear, "My Preschooler Deserves a Gold Star vs. Illinois." We may start seeing bumper stickers that read, "My Child Was Potty Trained At Three Months." And are we really that far away from seeing "My Baby Was Conceived Faster Than Yours?"

Obviously, parents should encourage their children to do well, and there's nothing wrong with being proud of our kids. But there's so much pressure on kids today that they don't need us to shoot off fireworks every time they get a good grade and mourn every time they don't. It's probably enough to encourage them to do their best. We all could be a little less competitive when it comes to our children. And I'll bet I can be less competitive about my kids than you can.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver