List-Making and Loving the Child You Have

Beth Slattery
Upper School Dean
Harvard Westlake School

When my son was in 7th grade, he placed into the highest-level math group. This was a source of great pride for me…until he failed the first three tests. I distinctly remember battling in my head: do I have him move down to a more appropriate level or do I keep him where he is and hope it gets better? I wish I could say I immediately moved him down, but I did not. He stuck it out the whole year, ending with a mercy B- and having no better understanding of algebra than he had 9 months earlier.  Again, I was at a crossroads. This time, I chose the right path for my son. He repeated Algebra (meaning he was no longer in the highest-level math class) and regained his confidence in math.

This incident was about much more than math; it was about deciding to accept the child I had (one who simply didn’t belong in the highest-level course) or spend time wishing he were different, wishing he was the kind of kid who DID belong in the highest-level course. This dilemma comes up all the time for parents at independent schools and is at its worst during the college process, especially as it is time to make “the list.” How many times have kids said “My parents want me to apply to [name any school with a single digit admit rate]”?