My child is still embryonic, so I have a while to work this out, but as a teacher I’ve thought about it a lot and decided (shocker here): it depends on the child.
I am deeply ambivalent about grades. On one hand, I think they give kids a nice, concrete measure of their progress, and go a good job of sending the message that their are levels of achievement. For some kids, they are very motivational. On the other hand, I think kids (and parents) very easily start to mistake product for process, and see the grade as the last word on their progress: in my experience, kids are HAPPIER when they guess on a reading quiz and get a B than when they read the book and get an A. Somehow a series of lucky guesses validates THEM, shows that they have the “right stuff” or something. It’s really bizarre.
As far as pressure goes, there are many different types of kids and I think the best approach depends on the type you get:
When it comes to bad grades, you get (pronouns randomized: all these can be girls or boys):
The mess: This is the kid who really would like to get good grades, wants to get good grades, but can lose their homework between their desk and the teacher’s hand. This is the kid who forgets about science projects until 10 o’clock the night before, has a 5-inch layer of crumpled papers at the bottom of his backpack, hasn’t seen his math book since October, and (most importantly), when he runs into the inevitable problems these things cause, throws up his hands and gives up. This kid needs strategies and he needs them early and he needs them reinforced, Yelling at him is pointless because he’s trying as hard as he can, he just doesn’t know what to do. Letting this kid sink or swim is criminal because he’s going to need all the same strategies once he graduates, regardless of what he does with his life.
The over-committed. This kid can’t keep her grades up because she’s in EVERYTHING. Orchestra, band, musical, dance team, Green club, pep squad, 7 AP classes and has a part time job because she needs money for all her other hobbies that aren’t even connected to school. This one is hard. On one hand, it seems like there’s some sort of base level of commitment in taking a class, and if you aren’t willing to make the time for it, maybe you shouldn’t be in it at all, and at the end of the day, isn’t academic classwork more important than 900 activities and hobbies? But on the other hand, she’s usually really, really happy, learning all kinds of things, having the time of her life, and it sure is hard to take any of that away. And it’s hard to say if mastering BC calc by senior year is more important than being on the newspaper staff. For a kid like this, I certainly wouldn’t expect As, but I might draw the line at all Cs, or failing things. Those would probably be the signals that something needs to go.
The “doesn’t give a fuck”. These are the hardest. This is the kid that just doesn’t seem to care about anything academic. He’s failing honors courses so you put him in regular and he fails those too, because not doing anything is still not doing anything. He may or may not have some outside interest: maybe a sport, maybe girls, maybe video games, maybe marijuana. He’s immune to nagging, pleading, rational conversations, and while withholding privileges may work for a while (a little bit–a few Cs), they mostly lead to lies and fights and battles of will that are unsustainable. Sometimes there is an underlying cause you can winkle out: depression, anxiety, fear of failure, bad influences, a learning difference, but other times nothing like that comes to the surface. It really just seems to be that he doesn’t give a fuck what you or anyone else thinks. Honestly, with a kid like this, absent any “cause”, I think you have to let him live with the consequences of his grades and just try to keep the personal relationship healthy, happy and open. Hopefully he’ll be open to taking advice someday–and may even remember some of the things you tell him–but no power struggle is going to work.
The selective give a fuck: this kid’s report cards are all As and Fs. When she cares–either for the subject matter or for the teacher–she does well. When she doesn’t, she does nothing. With a kid like this, I think there is some responsibility to get her to care at least enough to be passing, but a kid like this tends to be someone you can reason with: she cares about SOMETHING, so you have a way in. With a kid like this, I’d probably insist on high Cs and Bs.
In terms of good grades, there are some kids who really thrive under pressure. They are capable of doing well and enjoy doing well and getting praised for it. If I had a kid like that, I’d probably pressure them to get straight As because I know that kid, and they are happier with that pressure. For that kid, having mom not CARE if you make straight As or not is actually harmful. There are other kids who put a lot of pressure on themselves but need mom to back off and offer the unconditional approval they don’t get from themselves.
A final note: One thing I think I will be militant about is cheating. I really want to raise a kid that stands by what they do. Otherwise, you get that whole process/product problem: kids don’t realize they don’t learn when they cheat, and no amount of repeating it to them will convince them; they might agree in theory, but deep down inside, they think that if they’ve completed the assignment (even if it was copied), they’ve accomplished the task and deserve the grade. This can really hamper an education, and I’d like to avoid it in my own child however much I can.