Kids' worth is more than a sum of their grade cards

It's that time of year again. Memorial Day is behind us, and the end of the school year will be here before we know it. Graduating seniors know where they're going to college, and high school and middle school students have learned whether they'll be attending honors classes and advanced placement courses - or not. Some elementary school kids were accepted into gifted and talented programs.

Based on these academic measures, we parents judge ourselves accordingly. Have we been successful?

I thought about this recently on the phone with my mother-in-law, who didn't work outside the home. I asked, "What's new with you?" She said she didn't have any big news. No Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers.

Parenting doesn't have such concrete accolades. There are no bonuses or tangible rewards for performance. It's a subjective enterprise that one day can seem wonderful and the next, dreadful. So, we look to proxies - like college acceptances and honors classes - to tell us how we're doing.

But parents give over too much power to the schools - and especially college admissions offices - to decide which children are doing well in life.

This is a mistake. First, it's wrong to think every kid must aspire to the Ivy League. Certainly, that achievement gives parents bragging rights. But, what if a kid isn't studious? What if his or her gifts lead in another direction? Have we built enough alternatives into schooling to explore these?

These questions are crucial to unraveling our current anxiety over school testing. If parents are judging themselves based on where their kids go to college then we're on a track where one kind of skill - academic - is valued, and anything else is lesser.

There may be signs this attitude is changing. Since 2008, roughly 47 percent of seniors graduating from New York public schools were planning to enter four-year colleges. That compares with 53 percent earlier in the decade.

Also, the Obama administration is working to make high school vocational education more relevant to careers. In his State of the Union address back in February, the president pointed to the German system of work apprenticeships.

Another problem with judging kids by their academic performance is that it omits so many dimensions of what makes a person a good human being. As a society, we place too little emphasis on character. We elect people to office who use power for sex or money and then lie about it. We admire celebrities who demonstrate all too often that character didn't earn them their place in the spotlight. Up this week: Amanda Bynes.

I asked one of my favorite parenting writers, Laura Markham, an author and clinical psychologist who blogs at, how she would define a well-raised person. Here's her list:

Can he take responsibility when he makes a mistake? Can she do what's right even when it costs her (and doing what's right almost always costs us)?

Can he keep himself from lashing out at someone else when he gets angry?

Can she forgive herself for being imperfect? Can he apologize and repair when he inadvertently damages a relationship?

Can she pursue her passions, overcoming the inevitable hurdles and setbacks, and find the courage to get up the next morning to try again even when everything goes wrong?

Can he love deeply?

That's a difficult list to live up to, but it's a far better gauge of successful parenting than a Regents score.

This essay was first published in Newsday.