Grades and Marks

Why do children resort to lies, fibs and bluffs when it comes to grades? Is it fear, a sense of shame or the pressure to excel? This article explores this problem.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

Grades and Marks

Amal, a grade 9 student, is usually a cheerful teenager. One afternoon though, he was gloomy. He did not want to go home. In fact, he was afraid to go home. He had received his science answer paper that day and he had secured 75 marks. His parents, who wanted him to pursue medicine for a career, had expected him to score more than 95 every time in science. Knowing this, Amal was upset. When he reached home, his mother asked him about his marks. Amal paused for a few moments and replied that he had secured 95 in science. When his mother asked him to show the answer paper, he said that the teacher had taken it back immediately.

That same evening, Amal’s classmate, Nisha, coolly told her father that she had secured 60 marks in science, a subject in which she usually failed. Nisha had actually failed this time too, scoring just 30 marks. When asked about the answer paper, she too lied that the teacher had taken back the answer paper immediately.

Amal and Nisha are not alone. Many children behave like them when it comes to revealing their real marks or grades. Grades seem to make Pinocchios of our children. In fact, given the findings of the ParentCircle–IMRB* Nationwide Survey, 2015, a quarter of our children should be sporting long noses like the fictional Pinocchio whose nose grew longer every time he lied! Thankfully, their protracted snouts are invisible.

According to our survey, 1 in 4 children lie to their parents about grades. Of course, children agreed to lying about other things too, but lying about grades topped the list of lies for 24% of children surveyed. This is a cause for concern.

Reasons for lying about grades: 

Pressure to perform: Given the present system of education where the thrust is on marks, children are under constant pressure to perform well. Joan Elango, Principal, Anita Methodist Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Chennai, says, “There is a lot of pressure on students from both parents and the school. Parents want their children to perform well consistently – this is not possible; it is an idealistic situation. Whenever performance dips, parents question their children. Also, marks play a prominent role in parent-child conversations about school. How many parents discuss their children’s friends, library visits, or anything else related to school? It’s always about marks and tests. As far as teachers are concerned, they are driven by the fact that they need to produce hundred per cent results every year. There is pressure on them from both school management and parents. This pressure reflects on their emphasis on students' performance.” With both the school and parents pressurising children to secure high marks, children are forced to lie about their grades.

Fear: Fear of parental disapproval makes children lie. Rani Jayakumar, a sixth grader, who excels in most subjects, says, “It is my second language, Tamil, in which I struggle the most, that makes me lie to my parents every time I get my marks.” She adds that she erases her marks in her answer sheets and report cards. Sometimes, she even forges her parent’s signature. She does this because she fears her parents’ reaction on seeing her performance. What does this mean? Are parents too strict when it comes to their child’s academic performance? Do they resort to punishing their children if they do not perform well? Do they not appreciate the good feats of their children? The answer to some of these questions lies in our survey. The ParentCircle-IMRB Nationwide Survey, 2015, reveals that more than one fourth of the children felt that their parents do not appreciate them. Now, that certainly is not a healthy trend.

Low self-esteem: Whenever a child’s self-esteem takes a dip on account of poor performance, she hides behind lies. Stefi Ben, a ninth-grade high achiever from Chennai, admits to lying just once when her performance slipped in her favourite subject, English, in which she usually topped the class. Stefi states, “I felt that I had let myself down. I was embarrassed and, therefore, lied to mom about my marks.” What Stefi felt was the pressure from within to consistently excel in her studies. She was a victim of low self-esteem. This can happen to both high as well as under-achievers.

High expectations: Joan Elango adds, “Even scoring 99 marks isn’t good enough these days. Parents want 100 – that too, all the time. Earlier, it wasn’t possible to score the kind of marks students are scoring now (100 even in languages!).” The 2015 Class 10 exam results prove this. In the Tamil Nadu State Board exams, we had 5 students notching 500/500, 190 students scoring 499/500 and 542 students getting 498/500. Ironically, in the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Examination) exams, out of around 13 lakh students, close to 1 lakh students managed a perfect 10 CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average)! With such results possible, expectations will naturally be high. And when expectations are not met, lies step in. Now, that is a direct relation.

Parental assumptions: Parents believe that children can do a lot better than they are actually capable of. This false assumption leads to setting unrealistic standards. If only parents are aware of their children’s true potential and accept it, children wouldn’t have to lie

Sense of achievement: Intriguingly, one major finding of the survey reveals that 85% of children surveyed stated that making their parents happy gave them a sense of achievement. 87% of parents surveyed mentioned this too. These findings imply that children enjoy a sense of fulfillment only if they please their parents. Most of the time, the feeling that they have disappointed their parents by not scoring high marks is what makes children lie. This, in some ways, is also linked to the concept of sense of achievement. Another significant finding of the ParentCircle-IMRB Nationwide Survey, 2015, is that getting good grades gives children the most sense of achievement. 86% of children surveyed mentioned this. 91% of parents too agreed on this. These vital statistics tell us that achievement is directly linked to emotional satisfaction. Children could pat themselves on their backs only if they got high scores. Otherwise, they felt they had not accomplished anything.

What should be done

In an environment where grades overpower the need for knowledge and empowerment, a change in the mind-set of parents is essential. Just, following these steps will ensure that.

Have realistic expectations: Unrealistic expectations bring on the pressure to perform. Such pressure ends mostly in failure which in turn leads to lies. “The best approach to avoid this would be to scale down parental expectations,” says Anitha Bennett, a freelance writer and a mother of two. Children should also set attainable standards for themselves. They should be taught to be aware of what their actual potential is.

Arrive at solutions: Parents should talk to children openly about the reasons for lying. They should find out what problems they face and, together, arrive at a solution. If children are finding it difficult to cope with a particular subject, parents should arrange for special coaching in that subject. If children are facing any distractions that prevent them from studying, parents should talk to them to get over those distractions. This will enable them to perform better.

Encourage honesty: Parents should tell their children that they will not be reprimanded if they tell the truth about their marks. When children reveal their actual marks to their parents, despite not performing too well, parents should appreciate them for their honesty. This will ensure transparency in their communication with parents. For children to be honest with their parents about grades, a radical change is the need of the hour in the educational system and in the mindset of parents.

Focus on learning outcomes: Joan Elango says, "The educational system itself revolves around marks and not knowledge." She suggests that we could do away with board exams altogether for they only make children undergo a lot of pressure. She says, “Marks could be eliminated and grades brought in as in the case of CBSE. However, be it marks or grades, the focus should be on learning outcomes.” Children could probably be given a meaningful and narrative feedback which will help them work on areas that they need to.

Parents are often guilty of not giving their children enough freedom. The ParentCircle-IMRB Nationwide Survey, 2015, shows that more than one third of the children feel that their parents are always overprotective. In the same light, more than one in ten children feel that they are never allowed to make their own decisions and their parents never let them choose their subjects and careers. Anitha Bennett states, “Children should be allowed to choose subjects they like or have an aptitude for.” This will mean that such choices are offered in middle school itself rather than at the secondary level as is the practice now.

Not just in grades, even in every other aspect of their lives, let our children learn to be honest human beings. Let them emulate the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in being truthful.