Perfect Grades Are My Son's Obsession, And It's Hard On Him

Seeking Perfect Grades Made My Son An Anxious Loner — Whose Fault Is It, Really?

Caucasian student reading book in library
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When my college sophomore gets a low A, he thinks he has in some way failed. His mind tells him that a 98%, a near-perfect grade, isn’t acing the exam; it means that he fell 2% points short of what he should have gotten. And if he gets a high B? He falls apart. I have to leave my ringer on all hours of the night to talk him down, while he berates himself and weeps. (And, when I use the word “weep,” I am choosing it with precision.) Achieving that perfect GPA has become my son’s life’s quest, which leaves no room for anything else. It didn’t have to be this way, and I want to blame his pathological myopia on my husband — who has spent the last 19 years grooming our son to be an anxiety-driven, over-achieving loner.

When most college kids are getting kicked out of bars, tailgating before football games, or even joining study groups, he lives each day with a lonely rigidity. No matter what day it is, he sets his alarm for 5:30 a.m., and then the studying ritual begins. I don’t know the specifics, but it is grueling and consumes at least eight hours of every day. His study breaks consist of eating, using the bathroom, and peppering in motivational videos.

He made me give up six minutes of my life to watch one of these inspirational mini-films once. At about the two-minute mark, the narrator urges his viewers to follow this formula: “Break it down, and add just a little more effort, just a little more focus, add just a little more time management, add just a little more patience, add just a little more studying, add just a little more listening, add just a little more discipline.” No matter how many times my son watches it, the “add just a little more studying” part is what really speaks to him. And that is all the motivation he needs to go out and start studying. Again. 

He studies alone, he eats alone, he walks to class alone. I imagine he has days where he says no more than “hi” to the other kids on campus. This is a friendly and charismatic kid, one of those people who laughs and has those sprightly, crinkly eyes that make you feel like you are the most hilarious person in the room. He is a loyal and trustworthy friend, but few people get to meet this once-defining part of him.

My son made a conscious decision that friends and socializing were superfluous, a far second to grades, and my husband praises him for this. He has been reduced to a single-vision, cardboard cutout of himself — and it is heartbreaking.

I used to be complicit. I sat right alongside my husband when he questioned our son’s grades. Why didn’t he get a check plus on his addition homework instead of a regular check? And the week’s spelling test – could the teacher give him a second chance to get a perfect score? Almost from our son’s conception we were smothering him, making him complete Spanish counting drills and geographically-accurate world puzzles. Our mantra, which had always been “Just try your best,” became dwarfed by “Put that puzzle piece in the ‘don’t know’ pile, then put it in the right spot next time.”

From the get go, I helped create an anxious kid, who would eventually prize his stellar report card above all else. I thought I was teaching my son to be a lifelong learner, but I was really teaching him to perform with the precision of an anxious perfectionist to make the grades he (we?) craved.

But by the time my son hit middle school, I was off the “grades-above-all-else” bandwagon. I was starting to see snippets of a future self-cloistered student – and I didn’t want that for my son.

I started bribing him with cash for grades he got below an A; a 90% or above would earn him absolutely nothing. I knew I could dangle an exorbitant amount in front of him, because getting even a single B was going to be a struggle. But I figured if he wanted a longboard enough (this was back when he had interests that extended beyond a textbook), he would sacrifice a couple of grades.

In the end, he couldn’t, and it was unwavering. I don’t know any other parent that would be so disappointed to see their child’s name on the dean’s list. 

I don’t pat myself on the back for my late-in-the-game efforts. I understand what I did. Unfortunately, when I pulled out, my husband doubled down. If our son would miss a test question, his father would tell him to “put more hours in.” This meant quitting the tennis and swim teams.

“It wasn’t like you were a star, anyway,” my husband would say.

This meant weeding out friends (“They’ll all probably end up working at McDonald’s”) and foregoing family dinners. Summers were for taking college classes and preparing for the ACT. Over the years, my husband has stripped his son of all the tools that might help a perfectionist calm their migraines or quell their anxiety. Good grades trumped mental health.

And now? My son calls, and I tell him the latest hometown gossip. And then he digresses and — voilà — I am back to listening to another meandering soliloquy about grades. There is no back and forth; it’s like he’s forgotten how to have a conversation. Always listening in, my husband throws out cliches like “That’s how you get ahead in life” and praises his oldest son’s tenacity.

The person who should have had tenacity all along was me. First, I was a mindless accessory; then, I was a spineless bystander. So, yes, I want to point the finger at my husband for our son’s unhealthy obsession with grades — but, really, can I pin 100% of the blame on him?