What am I worth?
It’s a question that most children and young people are asking. The reason they are asking it is because they are being raised in a society which values money, status and celebrity. They are growing up in communities which attach a high value to academic success and they attend schools that are dominated by a performance culture. So, ‘What am I worth?’ is a pressing issue – 3 A*s? That prestigious university place? Or just whatever job I can find?
Like it or not, the fabric of our society is increasingly being woven by the economy. To listen to politicians across the spectrum, you could be forgiven for assuming that the economy is some kind of Minotaur, which we have to appease by feeding with ever-increasing productivity. Writing before the 2015 general election, Justin Welby observed that, ‘We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow … It is a lie …that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of [the] story’. There’s nothing wrong with wealth, but how we create it and what we do with it matters, especially when it comes to the messages we send our children.
Every parent wants their child to do well in school and to achieve their potential. The problem is, when the system creates hierarchies of success people start to compare themselves. It harms everyone – the most academically able are competing for those coveted A*s to get into the best universities and to get the best jobs. Except, when they come out of university they often have to take unskilled work, because there aren’t enough glittering prizes for everyone. So what happens to those young people who would normally take unskilled work? They’re unemployed. Competition is the name of the game and grades matter. They become the means by which your child measures their worth.
As parents, we all need to take a long, hard look at the messages we’re sending our children. Of course we tell our children we value honesty, integrity, compassion and determination above academic success. But do our actions say otherwise? Do we work as hard as we do because we genuinely have to, or because we’ve bought into the relentless social pressure to have more? Are we striving for what we need, or what we want? Children will always, given a conflict, follow actions over words, so it’s important that we don’t send mixed messages. We must be consistent in our view that our worth is in who we are, not in what we own.
During the Cameron government Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, planned to create a database to help students choose which A level subjects to study and which universities to apply to. The information was derived from the tax records of successful people, showing which were the most lucrative careers to pursue. Students could then simply select their subjects to lead to the career and earning potential of their choice. Subjects which led directly to a high-flying career were described as ‘facilitating’. The obvious message was that some subjects (such as arts) weren’t of value, so if you were, for example, a teacher with a music degree, you were considered pretty much valueless. So how do you value a teacher? Or music, art, drama and poetry?
This isn’t just about future income. We are facing an unprecedented tsunami of mental health problems in our teenage population. The causes of this are many, but one of the reasons that young people give is the relentless pressure to achieve good academic results. The best way to deal with this is to talk about it with your child. Help them to form goals and ambitions that aren’t entirely reliant on grades. Let them know that you are proud of their academic achievements and the work that’s gone into their success, but also tell them often what you value about their character. Assure them that it’s fine to choose things in life that aren’t dominated by money or status. Encourage them to enjoy hobbies and time with friends that don’t involve competition to achieve.
There’s no better way of ensuring a happy, healthy child or teen than to foster good lines of communication within the family. Talk to them about your life and your values and listen to them as they talk about theirs. Help them to keep academic pressure in perspective and make sure that their expectations, and yours, are realistic and achievable. Above all, never be afraid to let them know how proud you are of their worth as people.
Gill Robins – Christians in Education