01/05/2012 01:49 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

The Best Bad Report Card Ever: Why I Delight In the "Minus" on My Daughter's Report Card

Recently, I met with my four year-old's pre-school teacher for a scheduled school conference. After the niceties and pleasantries were exchanged, the teacher slid a report-card-like rating sheet across the desk. My eyes quickly scanned the single-columned list of developmental milestone markers and landed squarely on the lone "minus" tally.

Gasp. Uh-oh.

I assure you -- I don't mean that in the "She's gonna be in so much trouble" kind of way, but rather in a half-nervous, half-amused, "What has my fiery little one done now?" curious response.

The "minus" mark was next to the "Follows directions" category and, according to the teacher, my daughter is very good at following directions about classroom routines (sitting quietly during story time, cleaning up before snack time, etc). When it comes to completing certain art or craft projects, however, "she likes to do things her own way," explained the teacher.

The incident in question had to do with a picture of a monkey. The teachers wanted the kids to color the monkey brown. My daughter wanted to color it red. The lesson was not about color identification, but rather about animals who live in the jungle.

If my husband had been at the conference with me, he would have gotten a cheering high-five. Seriously, I think that is the best criticism I have ever heard and may just merit a trip out for ice cream. I did muzzle myself long enough to verify with the teacher that my daughter expressed her artistic preferences in a respectful manner. When this was confirmed, I danced a silent jig, knowing that my little one has a mind of her own and likes to exercise it.

I worry that this instinct for out-of-the-box thinking and personal self-expression is often socialized right out of kids -- especially girls who are taught that being "good" means "going along." I felt joyful this morning learning that my girl still has her mojo.

For the naysayers, let me be clear: I do believe it is important for children to learn about rules and limits and the need to follow directions, both in school and at home. At the same time, I want my children to develop independent thinking skills and to have confidence in their ideas and preferences. It can be a difficult balance. I would never want to contradict a teacher's good intentions, but nor will I discourage my kids' creativity and free spiritedness.

In the case of the red jungle monkey who was supposed to be colored brown, I find my daughter's respectful lack of compliance to be delightful.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker, mother of two girls, and author of "Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying." Please visit her online at, Like her on Facebook, or Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.