Grades no guarantee of success, as troubled children of the rich show

A US psychologist says giving children a balanced view of what success means is a better avenue to self-fulfilment than simply pushing them to achieve top grades

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 6:11am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 6:11am

Outwardly, the teens seem to have perfect lives: they're high achievers with caring parents who provide them with the latest tech devices, fancy clothes and exotic experiences that others can only dream of. Yet many young people from affluent families wind up feeling miserable and uncomfortable in their own skin.

That's what US psychologist Madeline Levine has found in decades of working with troubled teenagers from privileged families.

Top grades and admission into Ivy League schools are no indicators of how well a teenager will do in the future - in their careers and, more importantly, in leading happy, fulfilled lives, she says.

Levine's message to parents - to maintain a balanced view of what success means for their children - found a warm reception in Hong Kong, where she gave talks to senior financial executives and concerned families.

"Material success does not buy happiness," says Levine, author of best-selling parenting book The Price of Privilege, who was in town at the invitation of the charity Bring Me a Book Hong Kong.

Levine, who has worked with many children of high-powered CEOs, wealthy bankers and White House politicians over the years, has seen academic high-fliers suffer nervous breakdowns simply because they failed to secure an "A" in an exam. Others, stressed about not living up to their parents' expectations, resort to different forms of substance abuse.

"Children born to affluent homes have a much higher rate of depression because of the focus on grades and performance. Are you willing to take that risk in order to get into Stanford? I think it is a bad deal," she says.

They may need a perfect score to get into a top school, but the score does not predict how well they do or what kind of person they turn out to be. Instead of focusing on cognitive progress, parents and schools should work together to help children develop as a whole, including socially and emotionally, Levine says.

It would be a dismal life if all we did was work and have our work assessed by someone somewhere. We need to choose other criteria to define ourselves instead of just the material success we achieve, she adds.

"At the end of the day you want to be able to look into somebody's eyes and feel understood and cared about."

As a mother of three, Dr Levine had her share of struggles going against popular notions of success in parenting. Her family lived in an affluent suburb in California, and the mainstream environment worked well for her two academically inclined eldest sons. However, her youngest son was what she describes as "an average student".

Rather than blame him for not being a straight-A student, she began to reassess her expectations as a parent and sought to appreciate her son's unique interests and learning style. That was when she started to dismantle a notion of success that was narrowly defined by the child's grades and the status of his school.

"No one is arguing that children should not study or get good grades," Levine says. "The problem is that if all you do is push your children's grades, it leaves no time for them to do anything else. Grades count but so does knowing how to talk to somebody well, and how to work collaboratively, and how to be a good person.

"Children may not be as resilient as adults. It is the end of the world if they are humiliated and have to go home with a bad grade. It is so short-sighted. [The impact of ] parenting happens 24, 25, 30 years down the line. It is not the grade you get at the end of the semester. "

Instead of crowding timetables with tuition classes, sports and different classes, or smothering them with "educational toys" which promise to turn a young child into another Einstein, Levine says parents should give their children some unstructured downtime when they are free to play, explore and even experience boredom.

Young people who do well in life are independent, entrepreneurial, take risks and are willing to fail
Madeline Levine

This gives youngsters the space to figure out who they are, what interests them and craft a sense of identity. These provide a foundation for a child to develop a healthy self, and the skills that are truly essential for life, including resourcefulness, self-control, self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

From her experience working with families in the US, Levine says she has observed a more robust appreciation of learning and stronger belief in the merits of hard work among Asian parents. Many have a set view of what success means; often the attitude is: "We came here to help our child to be a doctor and that is what he is going to be. Period."

But then this attitude is just like with any other immigrant group in America. There is a certain degree of expectation as many parents endure the hardship of resettling in a new land to ensure a better life for their children, she adds.

But while it is natural to want a good life for your children, Levine believes the notion of what that means should be expanded.

Among her highlights as a parent, she says, was when her youngest son came home with a bonus from his part-time job. He chose to donate the money to the Make a Wish Foundation because he thought "that was the right thing to do".

"That was the best parenting moment in my life because it means that he is connected, kind and empathetic. Those are the things that meant more to me than anything else."

Different experiences shaped Levine's values. She grew up in an average family in New York, her mother was a social worker and her father a policeman. Although they had very little money, she says, her parents always chose to do the right thing and help people. They had even less after her father died when she was a teenager, but she later went to university on a scholarship.

In the past 30 years, her work has taken her to state schools, Ivy League schools and those "nobody had heard of", but Levine has little time for prestigious credentials.

"I know people who have gone through some of the best schools who are idiots, and people from ordinary schools who are fantastic," she says.

A recent exchange with a corporate client who complained of "spoiled" young recruits confirmed her views: further questioning revealed that the company sought new hires from the same old list of top schools circulated among employers.

"I told them that if you really want a great kid who takes risks and knows what it means to work, you go to state schools or the military, or to places where the kid has to work to get himself through school. The metrics we currently use are not good predictors," she says.

The young people who do well in life are independent, "they are entrepreneurial, they take risks and are willing to fail. These kinds of things do not tend to go well with a purely metrics-based system."