Why bad grades are fine

After three “keep practicing”s and a “progress report,” K came home last night with a handwritten note from his Chinese teacher: I’ll redo his oral exam tomorrow; ayusin n’yo ‘yan.

By her note, my son is falling behind in Chinese.

But — my son is here at home, on our bed, chattering about in a language he first heard ever ever ever ever just two months ago!

He’s singing me songs and counting up and down and trying to remember that “xièxiè” is “thank you” and “bù kèqì” is “you’re welcome” by imagining himself giving buko juice to two grateful snakes as a mnemonic.


I’d rather look at real life than a symbol on a piece of paper.

And if I were too caught up on grades, I would probably have missed all of these.

He’s struggling with Chinese but he’s… excited! I come home and he greets me with, “Mommy, call Manong Ethan, I want to practice with him!” And it’s not just Chinese!

We’ll be lying in bed, doing our own things in silence, when he’ll burst out, “What is magma made out of? Mom, look for a video on YouTube!” And when the explanation isn't enough, he’ll plant his fists on his waist, pouting: “Tell me more about it!”

If there were a place to punctuate with a fire emoji, here would be it.


Curiosity inherently entails not knowing. 

It’s the recognition of “I don’t know” and the hunger to follow through. I don’t want my son to be ashamed to not know. Recognizing that you don’t know is important. That’s how you end up… knowing.

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.
— Chinese Proverb

Very many very important very big decisions have been based on the denial of non-knowledge.


“I don’t know” are three of the most powerful words in the world! How shitty of a spot are we in now because of politicians who’ve never used them.

But grades only look at what you do know.

There’s always something to learn from trying. Because the wrong answer teaches us: “This is the wrong answer.” The wrong answer teaches us to figure out what went wrong, and to do it better next time. Discovering new things necessarily means doing what hasn't been done. It takes taking risks. It takes the possibility of failure.


It takes asking, “Will this work?” and finding out the answer — and there will be an answer every time, even if that answer is no.

But grades stop at “that’s wrong.”

The struggle will teach us, if we allow that struggle to happen. To grow, to develop lifelong skills to take anywhere and everywhere means trying new things, being in the territory of discomfort and failure, challenging ourselves beyond what we know we can do for sure. It’s “I don’t know if I’m good enough,” and then going out there to find out. And if we end up finding out that we're not, well, with a little work: 


If we aren’t good enough yet, we can be.

That's the mindset I want my son to have.

His enthusiasm is infectious. He loves to learn. 

I’ve seen him come up with solutions to problems on his own! I love just kind of sitting back and watch the teeny preschooler gears in his head turn as he surveys the room, spots a tiny chair, brings it over to the desk, and realizes it’s too short, and looking around again for something else he can push across the room for a boost to finally grab the M&Ms.

Or when he saw scissors for the very first time, dangling it on his fingers trying to figure out how it worked. This was one of the first few days in his first school, so I was still able to watch. He was alone (!) with the scissors, so I was just kind of… there, keeping an eye. They were pretty big for his teeny fingers, and he couldn’t make them work. After a couple unsuccessful tries, I saw him take the piece of paper, hold it between his knees so it was sticking out, and grab one handle in each hand. Snip, snip, snip! Aba!

Then the teacher swooped in, yanked the scissors out of his hands, and told him “that’s not the way!” — I mean sure, technically that’s not the way, but did you not just see how this three-year-old figured out a contraption for himself all on his own? Like???

He was technically wrong simply for being different.


Making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process. It’s something that should be encouraged, not penalized.

And I can see he’s intrinsically motivated it. He learns for the sake of learning, because it’s fun! Because it’s something he loves to do!

When he had an English poem to memorize for class, he stuck with me all night. Repeating “I am different” “I am different” “I am different” while laughing and smiling, and asking me if he can recite the poem again, “from the top or from the bottom?”

It was a long night (mostly because it was the blind leading the blind, a self-confessed “I suck!” at memorization) — we crammed ’til past midnight (sorry, pedias), but by the end, he was reciting that poem while tumbling and running after the cats and brushing his teeth and the half-asleep last round before we settled into bed.


Kid worked hard and pulled through. Whatever happened the next day, the success already happened that night.

It’s not just the memorized poem I’m amazed at: it’s my son’s unending enthusiasm and tenacity and going at a task I long would have whined about. It’s his trying to come up with weird images to use as mnemonics, and creating his own processes for them.

I am so, so proud whenever he brings home little stamped stars and smiley faces. And I'm even prouder of him asking me if he can practice when he doesn't. 

"Learning things the hard way" doesn't have to mean trudging along and hating every minute of it. It's knowing setbacks are going to happen and mistakes are going to be made, and then having the resilience and strength to improve rather than resign. It's framing failure as an opportunity for success.


It's "I suck" vs "Okay, this sucks, lemme try again."

I’ve stopped looking at his grades. I don’t correct his homework because I want him to make his own mistakes so he can learn from them, and then correct them himself.

We find our way up under and through - not because of a prize, not because of a grade, but because up under and through is our favorite roller coaster.

I say so much but this kid is so much more resilient than I am. I'm still afraid of mistakes sometimes, but when I see him powering through, or even initiating a practice session because he knows he's struggling... I feel like, gosh, if my 5-year-old can do that, I should be able to, too. I'm learning a lot from this little guy, and I share some of those tidbits here!

and K & I will see you in your inbox on Sundays!