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Stop measuring your kid
The fundamental problem with comparison.
Albert Einstein, the most influential physicist of the 20th century (you’ve heard of him?), experienced firsthand the drawbacks of being constantly measured.
As a child, Einstein found the strict, authoritarian, and measurement-obsessed school environment in Munich stifling. The emphasis on rote memorization and unquestioning obedience to “get high grades” at his school, known as the Luitpold Gymnasium, left little room for his ability to think creatively (necessary for breakthroughs in physics, it would turn out).
When Einstein's family moved to Italy in 1894, he was given the opportunity to leave the industrial school system behind. He continued his education through self-directed study, exploring the works of great thinkers and developing his passion for physics. This change in his educational journey allowed Einstein to fully embrace his curiosity and pursue his interests on his own terms.
We all know how that turned out. Einstein was able to transform the world once he was measured and compared less, not more.
But why, exactly, is measuring your kids so bad?
We’re going to dive into the following:
Our current cultural obsession with measurement and comparison
Why does measurement not create the results parents seek
Why you should stop measuring your kid
Let’s get into the details.
Obsessed with yardsticks
As soon as a baby comes out, we measure the distance from the tip of her toes to the crown of her head. Is her length normal? As she grows, so do the expectations: Will she be an “early” walker? How many words should she be speaking by age 2?
Children as young as four or five years old are subjected to standardized assessments designed to evaluate their readiness for the academic rigors of… kindergarten.
These tests often measure a variety of skills, such as literacy, numeracy, and even social-emotional competencies (how “cool” is your kid, numerically?), to determine if a child is "on track" for success in school. Never mind the anxiety disorders they leave in their wake; bureaucrats must know if your 4-year-old is developed enough. Government funding is at stake!
It doesn’t stop at kindergarten. We scrutinize and compare every aspect of our children's development – from sports to chess to volunteer work. As a result, children may feel immense pressure to excel in various domains, lest they be labeled as underachievers or disappointments.
In an effort to keep up with peers’ efforts, parents’ expectations, and societal norms, young learners experience heightened stress, anxiety, and even burnout.
Well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, right? The world is tough – don’t they need to be tough to succeed? If we don’t measure our kids, how will we know if they are okay?
There’s a famous law that has something to say about this.
Goodhart's Law states, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
As test scores become the primary focus for students and educators, the original purpose of these assessments — to evaluate learning and skill development — is forgotten.
For example, the pressure to improve test scores in the Atlanta Public Schools system led to widespread cheating. Teachers and administrators altered students' test answers to ensure high scores and maintain their jobs, while the students' actual learning took a backseat.
Meanwhile, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind, schools have increasingly focused on math and reading to the detriment of subjects like science, social studies, and the arts.
In Texas, schools were found to be purposefully holding back ninth-grade students who were predicted to perform poorly on standardized tests. By retaining these students in ninth grade, schools could report higher test scores for their tenth graders, creating a “misleading impression” (a lie) of academic success.
Broadly, students are drilled on test-taking strategies and practiced answering test items so frequently that they have no interest in learning. This is harder to quantify than cheating, but still an obviously devastating loss. Kids’ genuine love for learning is sacrificed at the altar of high scores.
Now, we don’t claim that no one should ever be measured or held accountable for their lack of effort. Of course, sometimes scores matter. But when exactly?
What is the clear divide between harmful and helpful measurements?
When measurement matters
In one of our previous articles on the power of play, we pointed to Finland as an example of a country using the power of play and having great success. Finnish kids have extended recesses, are rarely tested (measured), and have no homework, and yet they score among the highest in the world (the irony of using high test scores to argue against testing is noted. However, given that the Finns perform so well despite not teaching for the test is a useful approximation of our point).
One reader (thank you, Shannon) pointed out that countries like Singapore, which are obsessed with measurement, are actually scoring higher than Finland in recent years. Why do their measurements succeed while those in, say, America, for example, fail so badly?
Singapore's success is not due to an emphasis on test scores. Instead, the system integrates timely feedback and formative assessment, ensuring that measurement is a means to an end rather than the end goal. The book "Visible Learning" synthesizes over 800 meta-analyses to identify the most impactful strategies for enhancing student learning. Providing timely, specific feedback to students is among the most potent factors in improving academic performance.
Singapore's education system focuses on formative assessment for the teachers, not just the students. By using ongoing assessments (not tests) and feedback to adjust instruction, teachers can identify and address students' needs more effectively, leading to significant gains in student achievement.
In short, measurement only matters when it’s used to give timely and actionable feedback to kids. For the most part, grades and report cards are not timely enough, and the binary of “good/bad” fuses learning with the fear of failure. Instead, the feedback should be small, frequent, and changeable, like the scores on a self-paced learning app.
Feedback is important on the pathway to growth, but the pathway itself unfolds unpredictably.
Predictably unpredictable success
Anyone who’s had any success in life will tell you it unfolds in strange ways.
Despite receiving poor grades in school and facing discouragement from teachers and peers, a girl named Sophie pursued her passion for painting. Her unpredictable path unfolded for her – but along the way, she incorporated feedback to improve and had a strong growth mindset. Eventually, she gained recognition and success in the art world.
Kewauna managed, against all the odds of her background, to excel academically. Kewauna's success was attributed to her grit, determination, and self-control — hard-to-measure non-cognitive skills which proved more critical to her achievements than traditional academic measures.
This is not to say that intelligence doesn’t matter. It is the highest single predictor of success, after all. But it is still only about 35% of the variance. That means at least 65% of what makes successful kids mostly eludes direct measurement.
As much as we might wish we could find a measurement that will ensure the success and flourishing of our children, there is no such measure. And, as we’ve seen above, measuring every aspect of our children’s lives is actively harming them.
Unless you are using it to give personal, timely feedback on learning, do not worry about measurement.
And don’t praise your kids for having high measurements they can’t change, like IQ. Researchers find that children who were praised for their effort rather than their intelligence were more likely to embrace challenges and persist in the face of difficulties.
And especially, do not fret about measurement to try to keep up with the Joneses.
Steps to not keep up with the Joneses
We all know we shouldn’t push our kids in directions they don’t want to go just to impress our neighbors. But we’re human.
To move away from the temptation to "keep up with the Joneses," here are some actionable steps to help you measureless and focus more on what truly matters:
Prioritize a growth mindset and character development over numerical achievements.
Celebrate your child's unique interests and passions, even if they don't align with traditional academic pursuits. Support their exploration and help them develop skills that can lead to a fulfilling and purposeful life.
Encourage self-reflection and self-assessment. Instead of focusing on external measurements, guide your children to reflect on their learning experiences, personal growth, and how they can continue to develop their skills and knowledge.
Limit comparisons with others. Teach your children that everyone's path is unique, and it's more important to focus on their journey rather than constantly comparing themselves to their peers via percentiles.
Provide constructive feedback rather than emphasizing only outcomes. Praise your kid's effort, persistence, and improvement rather than just their results.
The unpredictable nature of success should encourage us to prioritize creativity, resilience, and personal development over standardized measurements and comparisons. What other people can rank on a graph doesn’t predict much about what makes us happy and successful.
Embracing this approach may not be easy, but it is undoubtedly worth it for the sake of our kids and their future.
Thanks for reading,
Taylor + rebelEductor team