My Turn: Never the Right Numbers

By Patricia Velkoff

Patricia Velkoff

What is lost when young people become too focused on numeric feedback? Here in Northern Virginia, 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 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.

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 into thoughts such as:

• 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.

At best, some respond by finding a balance. They use their time badly but then get their work done eventually and with reasonable quality. Over time, they start caring about college and next steps.

At worst, they feel overwhelmed, burdened, exhausted and unsuccessful. They avoid their families and themselves, squandering enormous amounts of time. 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:

1. 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.
2. Research shows that a steady stream of external evaluations can diminish internal motivation.
3. For some students, test scores are entirely inappropriate measures of their capabilities and potential.
4. 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.
5. 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. 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 external evaluations, and 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. 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.

Dr. Velkoff is a clinical psychologist in Vienna, Virginia who works with children, adolescents, couples and families.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here