Well, actually, this piece could be entitled seven hundred and six things that matter more than perfect grades. But hey, I needed to pick a number and there is a word limit for blogs. While there is no debating, that for most kids, grades do matter, and that they matter significantly, the fact is that we’re thinking about grades in entirely the wrong way. Good grades as an indicator of engagement with learning, curiosity and persistence mean something both in the present and as indicators of being successful out in the work place. But getting straight A’s so you’ll get into Harvard, in order to get an internship at Goldman Sachs, so you can go to Wharton for your MBA, and as a result, will be set for life is a very poor way to think about grades. Unfortunately, this has become the paradigm for many young people and it bodes poorly not only for their mental health, but for their success out in the work world as well. Here is an example of the kind of thinking that all of our parental and cultural anxiety about grades results in. This is an actual transcript of one of my fifteen-year-old patients; let’s call her Chloe. She and I are discussing possible college choices even though she’s only a sophomore in high school.
Chloe: My dad is a complete asshole. He’s mean to people and he cheats in business. I really think he’s a jerk.
Me: Guess you’d like to be a different kind of person than your father.
Chloe: No, not really. He went to Harvard and he’s made a fortune. My mom went to a state school. She may be nice but she’s a loser.
Me: Why is she a loser if she’s nice?
Chloe: Nice is being weak. If she had gotten better grades and didn’t waste time being nice she would get more respect and make more money.
Me: So whom would you prefer to be like?
Chloe: Duh (complete with mandatory eye roll). My dad. No one cares if you’re a jerk. They only care if you “make it.” And I want to make it. I know I’m not really learning anything at school now. But I don’t care. As long as I ace my tests and get into one of the schools that rich kids go to, I’ll be happy.
A seasoned adolescent psychologist is not easily taken aback, but it took me a minute after this conversation to recalibrate my reactions to Chloe. While I’d like to think she’s an outlier, a particularly vapid kid with no sense of who she is yet or the kinds of skills that will actually stand her in good stead, I know she’s not. Unfortunately, she is typical of a breed of teenagers who have become so focused – by their parents, their schools, the culture, their peers and themselves on gaming the system, cheating when necessary and believing that money and material goods are the foundation of a life well-lived – that they have little opportunity to develop the kinds of ideas that used to be typical of teenagers. Decades ago, when I first began practicing, teenagers typically were concerned with friends, appearances, and most touchingly, the world. They talked a lot about “meaning,” wrote treacly poetry and cared, often deeply, about big social issues like civil rights, famine or war. Unfortunately, I rarely hear about these concerns in my office anymore.
Anyone who’s been alive for a few decades longer than Chloe, who has actually participated in life, knows that there are dozens of mistakes in Chloe’s thinking. No school guarantees either success or failure. Being a good person matters. Materialistic people are less happy than less materialistic people. Real learning, engagement, enthusiasm and persistence are what lead to interests and passions in life. And perhaps most of all, that connection to others matters greatly to well-being and that narcissistic preoccupation with looking important is certain to impair connection. That being said, and while there are many components to a life well-lived, here is my list of things that matter, not simply more than grades, but that matter if we want our kids to have meaningful, productive and moral lives.
• Having Friends – one of the best predictors of mental health. Kids who are too preoccupied with grades and put all their energy into studying don’t have the necessary time to cultivate strong relationships. Other people tend to be seen as ways to gain an advantage rather than as potential sources of mutual support. Sometimes parents say, “They can make friends later.” No they can’t. Being a good friend takes a great deal of practice beginning early in life.
• Character – integrity, honesty, reliability. These are the kinds of traits that we look for in friends, spouses and workers. This country has seen enough despair brought on by people who lack a basic sense of decency and responsibility to others.
• Resilience – Try to make it through life without a good set of coping skills. Impossible. Life throws lots of curve balls at us and will at our children. Learning how to manage: how to delay gratification, to exert self-control, to soothe one’s self, to fall down and get up again – are mandatory so that our children are not undone when faced with challenge. And they will be faced with challenge.
• Interests/Passions – I’m tentative about using the word “passion,” hence the interests/passions qualifier. I’ve had moms call me worried that their four-year-old child doesn’t have a “passion.” Life is their passion. Depending on temperament, for many kids, interest is enough. But Chloe is right when she says she isn’t really “learning anything.” Real interests and passions grow out of talent, time and practice. They make life rich.
• Collaboration – Every C-level executive I’ve spoken with underscores the need for collaboration in the workplace. In our “flat” world, problems are so complex, that they will not be solved by individuals sitting in a room and being hit by a bolt of lightening. People working together, often across cultures and time zones will solve them. And of course, we all know the benefit of having a collaborative spouse or best friend.
• Self-Reflection – Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Whether you’re a fan of psychology or not, having the time and inclination to understand one’s self is critical to making good decisions, to understanding motives and to appreciating the challenges that living presents. Kids who are busy “climbing the ladder” from early on will often say they don’t have time to “think about things.” Big mistake. Without thinking about things, one is likely to repeat mistakes and feel “lost.” A sense of self comes from many places, but can’t be constructed without time devoted to self-reflection.
Next time your child insists on staying up half the night to study, or turns down an invitation from a friend, remember this list. Put it up on your refrigerator. I’ve seen hundreds of unhappy kids over the years. While academic success is certainly to be applauded, it is only one piece of the puzzle that goes into being a good person with a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. The kind of person you’d probably choose to work with, be friends with or marry.
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.