09/15/2014 07:11 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Sam Bloomberg-Rissman via Getty Images

Well, minus the tomorrow, this is the question my daughter posed one evening after I'd given my best "educator mommy" talk at the beginning of the school year. You know the talk. It's meant to encourage our kids to strive harder in school, and to approach their studies with the level of rigor and enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits we imagine Einstein or Dubois possessed. It begins with a pep talk about how capable we think our kids are, and ends with, "the work you do this year will lay the groundwork for the opportunities that are available to you in the future." The talk was meant to impart the crucial nature of doing well in school consistently, and to create a visual of colorful toy blocks stacked on top of a strong foundation. But, my kid was 12 at the time. So, she wasn't so much motivated as she was completely terrified. Basically, I was telling a brilliant student who'd also had her share of struggles in school that her 7th grade math score would define the rest of her life. Well, at least that's what she heard. I went on to explain myself and to make my case. She sighed, in that knowing way she often does. "I don't know why they say you go to school to learn if they're going to penalize you for not knowing everything. That makes no sense at all."

My daughter has a way of making me question the things I value in the simplest of ways. But, it was the first part of the conversation, that question -- "Will you still love me?" -- that tore me apart. I don't consider myself a Tiger Mom, but I do value education. As a teacher, educational administrator, and community leader, I often advised parents to be clear about their values. Buy books. Make sure your kids see you reading. Reward them for good grades and behavior. Find tools and resources for the subjects they struggle with. Take them on cultural outings that stir their curiosity about the world. But, somehow, in the midst of my walking my talk, my own child was worried that my love was conditional upon a grade from a relative stranger in her life who'd be gone forever after ten months. It frightened me. I thought about all the "perfect kids" whose parents posted their every achievement on Facebook and Pinterest, and I wondered about the pressure on parents and kids to soar. In the age of high-stakes testing and competitive admissions for kindergarten, how often does our anxiety as parents make our children question whether we can love them through their struggles and celebrate their strengths whatever they are?

Schooling in our society is a strange and wondrous thing. The balance between teaching and learning is often skewed. If we aren't battering teachers about accountability, we are belittling our kids on their lack of achievement. The sheer joy and experience of learning sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. We don't care what our kids are good at. They have to master everything, or we scare them into thinking the sun won't shine when they go to look for work. We don't care that some students need more time with material than others. We don't care that some kids learn by doing, and others learn by listening. And, we often fail to train, support, or schedule our teachers' days in ways that maximize their capacity for instructional responsiveness. And, then we wonder why things don't get better.

The truth is that we expect to see sick people in hospitals, hungry people in restaurants, and the spiritually broken in our synagogues, mosques, and churches. But, we want our children to come to school prepared, ready to learn, and accomplished. We want the heavy lifting to happen outside the school (this is the part where we blame parents). And, too often, we actually design our schools that way. If your family is unable to meet your non-instructional needs, you've got a hard road ahead. If you need something pedagogically different from the current design, you're more often than not shit out of luck. Which brings me back to my daughter's previous point: "I don't know why they say you go to school to learn if they're going to penalize you for not knowing everything. That makes no sense at all."

My daughter isn't 12 years old anymore. She's a college student at a unique institution nestled among the hills of Vermont. Despite the expectations that any child of mine would be automatically tracked for the name-brand school of my choice, I took a gamble and chose the school that is right for her. Part of my own self-discovery as a mom and educator was about putting my ego aside, and figuring out how she learns and what she needs. The good news is that she's incredibly intelligent -- and I learned I needed to affirm that loudly and often no matter what grades she earned. It was a rocky road. This kid was bringing home the rainbow -- one day 100 percent, next week WTH! We figured out that the challenge was that she learns in a unique way, and needed something different than the average fare. So, guess what? We found a college where the faculty focus on their own pedagogy, and participate in professional development designed to help them adjust instruction to students' learning styles. (I'm thinking, where were these folks as we dragged through K-12?!) Yes, you heard me right, college professors who are just as focused on what they teach as they are on how they teach. Score one for me and her dad here!

And, as for that pesky love question that lingered in my ears for hours as I lay awake questioning my parenting? I decided that I wasn't going to let her off the hook when I knew she was capable of more. And, I was going to have to learn when I was being snowed, and when she really needed affirmation and academic support. I also decided that school performance couldn't be the sum of all our conversations and focus at home. She needed space to discover who she is, what she cares about, and what she's good at -- and, she needed to hear me and her father celebrate all of that. So, this school year, don't leave out the pep talk about grades and their futures and blah, blah, blah. But, make sure they understand that your love and pride aren't contingent on anything other than the fact that raising them is the greatest privilege you'll ever have... Oh, yeah, and don't forget to hug a teacher. I used to be one. Second hardest job I ever had.