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Suddenly Grades Don't Matter. Now What?

The Big Idea

The recent changes in our circumstances, and the fact that they're impacting everyone in the world, require that we rethink our expectations for the path forward.

Suddenly, grades don't matter so much. This presents parents and kids on a college prep track with a set of unique challenges along with a set of unique opportunities to rethink the purpose and path of education and to clarify what is fundamentally most important to us – individually and collectively – in life.

In this space we’ve been given, we have the opportunity to step back and assess our assumptions alongside our kids. We have the opportunity to model, teach, and encourage a courageous way of navigating a life in which we are able to prosper and thrive in times of uncertainty. And in the process, we have the opportunity to build connection and trust that will foster and sustain our relationships long after the crisis has passed.

The Path May Not Be About Performance & Achievements After All

“I was so ready to be finished with high school - or so I thought. I’m realizing what I'd had it with was the pressure and stress. Every minute of every day. I’m realizing that I like learning and solving problems and being with my teachers and friends. I’m missing all of that. But I’m definitely not missing the pressure. Or the grades.

I’m realizing that everything I thought was important - since the 5th grade, when everyone convinced me that grades were the most important thing - is crumbling. I feel like I finally have time to - sort of - figure out what I'm good at, what I care about, and where I might be able to, you know, make a difference. And with all the changes happening in the world, I know there will be something I can contribute - even though I don't know exactly what it is. That feels good. And I can breathe again. And sleep again. That feels good too.” High School Senior, California

Every conversation I’ve had in the past month with parents and teens has started from a place of despair - on the part of the parents and uncertainty with a glimmer of optimism - on the part of the kids. The push to do well for many on the college prep track has required them to sacrifice their ability to be well in order to do well, and this reprieve, for many, is a relief.

For years, we’ve been enticed[1] to urge our kids to follow what was presented as a certain but narrow path to success and to the happiness we’ve been led to believe will follow that success: work hard, do more, and let us help. The goal has been for our kids to perform and achieve and to fill their resumes with the accomplishments meant to convey to admissions that they are admissible. We’ve asked our kids to defer their health and well-being to gain admission, but in so doing, it turns out, they’ve also deferred their preparedness for their future. The research on this is compelling. We believed that this was the only path, that we had no alternative.

But our kids having been paying too high a price. The additional work has also caused stress, distress, and anxiety in youth to rise at alarming rates. Pressure to excel has now been added as a risk factor in the health and well-being of youth.[2]

And come to find out, success is not and has never been scarce. And it has never come before happiness. Every one of the hundreds of studies on the relationship between success and happiness confirms that happiness comes first. That rings true, doesn’t it, when we consider our own lives, our own experiences? Only when we are well can we do well. And so, at this unprecedented time in our lives, we are invited to break from the Be All and Do All path and to explore what a life of Be Well and Do Well looks like. We have the opportunity to define success and happiness more broadly – perhaps as thriving while prospering – for ourselves and with our kids.

Reframing the Path

A broad way to think of the purpose of our work as parents is that it is to provide navigation tools to our kids and to teach them how to use them so they can forge their own path. Our purpose is not to determine or dictate the path itself and certainly not to determine the destination (a certain college or category of colleges; a certain career or category of careers; a certain lifestyle or category of lifestyles).

Our kids benefit when the path they make for themselves is independent of any expectations that others may have for them. From this perspective, our work is to create an environment with the necessary conditions and context for our kids to explore, discover, be, and become their best selves, well connected to who they are, to one another, and to a sense of meaning and purpose. The START Leadership framework, including the WIN Map, has proven to be effective for thousands of parents and kids in this work. When we believe in our kids as whole and as capable of struggling through and discovering for themselves how capable they are, we foster profound trust and connection in our relationship with them. And this provides the foundation of unconditional love which, the research is clear on this, is proven to be the ultimate gift we can give our kids.

This is the path we can take now – to get from where we are to a broader, more inclusive perspective on success, a place where our kids, throughout their lives, experience their ability, well prepared to thrive while prospering in a life they design and lead themselves.

For Discussion: How have the recent events impacted your kids educational path? What challenges / opportunities are you seeing in your family? In your community? Let’s start a conversation, take action, and shift the culture in our schools, colleges, and communities for good.

Learn more about how you can take action now to put these practices into place in your family at


[1] The status and resulting endowments of colleges depend on the number of students they can entice to apply and then turn away. And the businesses who benefit from convincing us that success is scarce and that they can help - from Baby Einstein to SAT prep - are part of a multi-billion dollar industry.

[2] The National Academy of Sciences, 2019 Vibrant and Healthy Kids Aligning Science, Practice, and Policy to Advance Health Equity (2019) Consensus Study Report

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