As I waited for my daughter’s teacher to hand over the red folder containing her most recent test scores, I began to experience that all-too-familiar nervous feeling in my stomach. I shouldn't have been worried—my daughter was doing great in school. Happy, social, making progress and growth. So why was I anxious about what was hiding inside that folder?
The truth is, a few years prior to this conference, I was the parent who hyper-focused on my child’s success in school. I would have panicked if either of my kids scored in the average category on tests, and likely gone into overdrive to make sure my son or daughter had more time for reading, more opportunities to work on math, and less time to just be a kid.
I took the folder, set it on the floor and asked her teacher, “How do you think she’s doing?” Surprised that I hadn’t even looked at the test scores or report card, she turned to me and said, “She’s exactly where she needs to be.”
As a former secondary school counselor myself, I’ve sat on the other side of the table with parents, like myself, who desperately wanted their child to be above average. They asked for tutors if their child got a “B” in math class or enrichment programs to help their teen get ahead of the rest of the pack.They expressed concerns that their child should be doing better, despite meeting—and often exceeding—the standard.
But here's something I've come to understand: The idea that an average score or grade is inadequate can have negative ripple effects on our kids.
For one thing, the pressure on children to achieve high levels of academic success is overriding the joy of education and making kids anxious and depressed. In the pursuit of excellence, it seems that we’ve forgotten one simple thing: There’s nothing wrong with being average. Average means our kids have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. It means there are going to be days when school is easy, and others where they have to dig in and work hard. Being average is not a guarantee of failure, and having above-average test scores or grades doesn’t guarantee success.
What educators want us to hear Many educators feel that it’s rare today to have an honest conversation with a parent about focusing on their child’s best personal work— especially if the best work that student is doing falls into the average range.
Often, the focus is on chasing the notion that if their child just works harder or does more, they can get into the top ten percent of a class or earn the coveted “above average” label.
Danyell Laughlin, a high school English teacher from Bremerton, Washington says she often has conversations with families and individual students about state test scores. When she talks to most about their passing scores, rather than excitement about passing, or relief that it will not have to be taken again, she gets the same two questions: “What was my score?” Immediately followed by, “What is the highest score?” This happens almost instantaneously, two seconds of joy and then disappointment if anyone scored higher, says Laughlin.
“When I try to move the conversation back to passing an important test required for graduation and the value of best work, most families tune me out. It makes me sad to see the pressure we put on students to try to fit 75 percent of the student population into 10 percent of the spots,” she says.
Instead, Laughlin challenges us to think about what is possible: every student celebrating their best work every day. “If every student was being encouraged to compete against his or her self for improvement each day, imagine the growth and happiness, the satisfaction and success our students would feel.”
Why do parents work so hard to avoid the “average” label for their child? Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a founder of Challenge Success, says parents experience a nagging fear that comes from the belief that average is not going to get their child to where they want them to be.
Whether that’s the elementary school everyone is vying to get their child into or a prestigious college, we are often focused on the next step. And Pope believes a lot of the focus on average vs. above average wouldn’t matter at all if there wasn’t this next hoop.
“When you think about learning, we’ve created a system where kids have to learn things quickly,” explains Pope. “This has led to a belief that students need to be sorted and ranked according to ability. But that doesn’t hold true in other places.”
Take driving, for example. Most people learn to drive at some point. “When teenagers get their license, you don’t hear parents raving about how their child is an ‘above average driver,’ so why do we rank and sort other areas in their life? Unfortunately, this is just a phenomenon of our culture, and one we need to start pushing back on,” she says.
Here’s one thing parents can focus on: PDF When I asked Pope the one thing she wishes parents would prioritize, her answer was “health, first and foremost.”
She recommends parents use the "PDF" mnemonic aid when trying to assess the impact these external pressures are having on their child: Playtime, Downtime and Family Time.
Pope says if you look at protective factors for kids of all ages, it turns out they fall into those three categories. One way parents can gauge if they are pushing too hard is to pay attention to how often the PDF is being impacted, she says. “It is very clear on any kid, this pressure to perform has some very serious health ramifications. We are seeing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, perfectionism, all in the name of being the best."
Pope says parents are holding onto the belief that if they relax their expectations, their child will have fewer opportunities in life. Fewer choices. Parents are driven by the fear that “doors will close” if their child doesn’t work harder and put in more time and effort towards everything they do. But, like Pope often tells parents, when a child is physically or mentally unhealthy, a lot of doors are going to close.
That’s why we have to find a way to stay away from impossibly high bars and instead, to focus more on learning and individual progress, and less on where our kids rank compared to their peers. To help our kids we need to see them as they truly are, not how we think they should be.