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243 Church St, NW, Suite 300-A
Vienna, VA 22180

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Never the Right Numbers

What is lost when young people become too focused on numeric feedback?   

Here in Northern Virginia, as a new school year has begun, a number of the high school students I talk with are fixated on having the Right Numbers.

To hear them tell it, parents and teachers are all unhappy with them.  Their GPA is not high enough.  Their SAT and ACT scores have not improved enough.  Their list of extracurriculars is not extensive enough and the kinds of activities not varied enough.  Their classes haven't been hard enough.  The list of teachers who can write their recommendations is not long enough.  And on and on. 
It’s one thing to hear this from students who believe that it’s going to turn out OK.  It’s quite another to hear it from those who are convinced they’ve failed at life already.  That’s the group that concerns me most deeply. 
With rare exception, these young people are smart, courteous, and perceptive.  They have loving families and friends, and they've steered clear of the serious problems that can derail a promising trajectory.  Most keep a few secrets from their parents, but nothing shocking, dangerous, or amoral.  Assuming you're not too judgmental about purple hair dye or some fashion choices, you'd be comfortable if your son or daughter brought them home to hang out.

They've internalized a message, though, that leaves many of them feeling inadequate, powerless, and defeated.  I am troubled by their self-talk, which can often be translated as follows:

  • Someone is good enough, but it's not me.
  • There's a ‘success checklist’ and it's too late for me to check the right boxes.
  • College is only the next ruthless competition; an endless series of grueling trials stretch into my future.   
  • I feel guilty whenever I take breaks, but I keep avoiding pressure by taking breaks.
  • My parents are worried about my future, but I tell them I don't care.
  • I do care – enormously – but I feel helpless and defeated.  

How do kids respond?  It depends.

At best, some find a balance that leaves them and their parents no more than a little bit worried and disappointed.  They care about achievement for its own sake but they also cut corners here and there.  They use their time badly but then get their work done eventually and with reasonable quality.  Over time, they start caring about college and get excited about some line of work or some field of study.

At worst, they feel overwhelmed, burdened, exhausted, and unsuccessful.  They are hopeless about a future that promises to be an endless competitive struggle.  They avoid their families and themselves, squandering enormous amounts of time on gaming, social media, YouTube, and the like.  Some are high achievers; others are not.  In both cases, though, there is despair about a system that feels designed to keep moving the goal post just beyond where it used to be so that they are perpetually doomed to fail. 

Do scores matter?  Of course they do.  But several serious difficulties come with a focus on test scores and GPAs:

  • Numbers fail to measure many characteristics and skills needed for life – things like social give-and-take, honor and integrity, setting and meeting personal goals, and humility when we have made a mistake. 
  • Research shows that a steady stream of external evaluations can diminish internal motivation.  
  • For some students, test score are entirely inappropriate measures of their capabilities and potential.  
  • When young people internalize the notion that their worth is determined exclusively by others, they may struggle to develop necessary confidence in internal standards for success.  
  • Numeric evaluations do not give young people the values and vision that connect them to participation in a world that is larger than themselves.

If we reflect deeply and thoughtfully, the purchasing power of those numbers does not fully set our children up for the quality of life that we want for them.  Nor do those credentials necessarily signal that they are self-motivated, courageous in the face of challenges, able to work cooperatively with others, or have what it takes to enjoy full, engaged, and flourishing lives.  

As a parent and a therapist, I have certainly modeled for my own children the value of education and professional achievement.  We talked about the doors that are open - or not – based on choices made in high school.  I hope that I have imparted more than that, though.  I hope my kids have learned that friendships are rewarding, that hobbies matter, and that a commitment to ideals and to personal goals can bring rewards that no Right Numbers can provide.  I hope they know that there are multiple paths to success, some of which have little or nothing to do with grades, scores, or external evaluations.  I hope they know that growing up includes fostering relationships and engaging meaningfully with the community just as much as it includes finding satisfying work. 
We have an interesting juggling act as parents, guiding our children to understand and meet demands from the outside world while helping them avoid temptations that can derail them.  Our job is broader, though, than what numbers can measure.  By recalling where we have found our own deepest personal fulfillment, we may remember to foster passion, connections, laughter, and love alongside the more clear-cut accomplishments gained through measurable academic and work achievements. Those areas of love and laughter don’t have Right Numbers, but they keep our hearts open and our minds alive, things that matter a lot over time.