School doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. Have your grades from elementary school ever come up once in your life? Even a Harvard GPA is unnecessary on a resume. That “permanent record” your teachers were keeping on you turned out to not be so permanent and nobody cares that you got suspended several times in 8th grade. The whole thing is an exercise in made up rewards and punishments, an artificial fantasy world that has no bearing on the real world.
And yet… school does matter. So much. Your tests determined what classes you would be placed in, which determined which college you’d get into, which turns out to have a massive impact on your future earning power. The habits you learned in school, the ability to figure out the rules and master them, to get teachers to like you and to perform well on assignments? That is life.
So this is the really tricky balance of parenting. You have to somehow explain to your kids that school doesn’t matter and that at the same time it really does. Paul Tough, in his books How Children Succeed and The Years That Matter Most, has a number of fascinating discussions about this. He talks about the famous marshmallow test, which supposedly predicts children’s ability to delay gratification. Perhaps, he says, it’s a better indicator of their ability to take ridiculous games seriously or even just to trust that the proctor is telling the truth about a second marshmallow. The same with the SAT—it takes a special kind of kid to understand that a test that is completely meaningless ought to be treated with complete seriousness.
It takes a special kind of parent to walk this fine line too. Cynicism doesn’t help them…but neither does blowing things out of proportion. The key is to explain that school is a game and like all games, it’s probably better to win than lose. But it’s important not to lose sight of what really matters: an actual education. And that this education is both of your jobs as long as you live.