Do marks determine the future of our children?

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Every March, thousands of households are stressed out because of school board exams. The 12th standard exam is considered as the make or break exam in determining the future of a child. How important are marks/grades in determining the future of our children? Do board exams represent a do-or-die situation?

It is very easy to say ‘marks are not everything’ and that ‘each child is talented’, ‘we should not pressure children’ etc. etc. Truth is, the importance of exams, the talent of children and their future is a convoluted, complex problem that is often considered in isolation without understanding that we need to start preparing our children for their boards and life beyond from the moment they were born!

What do marks represent? In order to answer if ‘marks matter’ we need to understand what they represent and what they don’t.

Marks represent effort. Marks do not represent knowledge. When I sit in judgement of my class, all I can evaluate is how well they have fallen in line with the requirements of the system.

The system requires them to come to class regularly, participate in it and put in at least 1 hour of effort in their hostel rooms for every lecture they attend. They are judged by 3 exams spread across the semester.

If they put in the necessary effort, they are bound to do well in the exams and get good grades.

Is the system flawed? Ha! How easy is it say that! We have a saying in academia: ‘only those who have conquered a system can criticize it’. So let kids who have done as expected and fared reasonably comment about the system. I am all ears. The others, in my opinion, are yet to earn that right.

There is no way for me to evaluate how intelligent they are. The same is the case with school boards.

Colleges decide admissions based on the marks from the board (and other ‘things’ which I don’t want to get into here). Any college would like to admit intelligent students, but they also want students capable of following instructions. So they take their chances by taking students with ‘high’ marks.

Not a bad strategy at all since intelligence can be acquired with disciplined effort too. By intelligence, we are only referring to the quality and speed with which a given problem can be solved. Genius is a freak of nature, so we will leave that alone.

Take the case of employers. They too judge students by the marks they get in college, perhaps in addition to aptitude tests and an interview. How many employers want intelligent mavericks who have a mind of their own and want to use it at every instance? They want intelligent people who will follow orders. They too are taking a chance by picking those who have got ‘good’ grades in college. (There is always a marks cut off to apply for placement interviews).

So are marks important? Hell, yeah! Marks matter unless the child is individualistic enough to chart his/her own path.

Individuality does not always mean wanting to becoming an entrepreneur. Unlike intelligence, individuality is perhaps a gift and one cannot perhaps learn it with practice.

However, individuality needs nurture, which only parents can offer. Sooner or later it is bound to surface. If we think that marks are not important that we need to determine

  1. if our child is an individual and if so, what kind of individual he/she is.
  2. if that individuality deserves nurturing (stalkers are individuals too!)
  3. if the family can afford that kind of nurturing. Sad, but the truth in many families which are struggling to make ends meet

The deserving individual needs space and leisure. Oodles of it! Only then can the individuality blossom at the right time. Only then the kid will tell the parents, ‘this is what I want to do with my life’.

Ideally, only couples who can afford to provide such space and time ought to have children. Unfortunately, parenting is an instinct.

The point I am labouring to make is:

If a child does not know ‘what to do’ by 11th standard, what should the parents do?

  1. Force the kid to work hard, do well in the boards and then take stock later? Or
  2. Don’t  push the kid and leave them be?

That is a tough choice! Only parents in that position will understand this.

The child not knowing what to do need not be anybody’s fault. Some, make that most, children are late bloomers.

They truly understand themselves only 2-3 years after they leave school. By that time most of them find themselves in a course that do not like and sometimes doing a job that they are not interested in. Then they will start searching for financial independence in Google!

I think young parents should encourage children to be independent. solve problems on their own and provide them with space to think. That is all that they can do. The rest is up to the child.

If the child is clear about what to do after school, well and good. If not, we should probably encourage them to take some time off and decide.

Many years ago, in an interview to Week magazine, actor Nandita Das mentioned that her father, painter Jain Das insisted that both his children take a year off after school to find themselves. I was probably in college when I read this and it had profound impact on me.

I often wondered if I should have done that myself. In any case, as a family we would like be to financially stable enough to afford this luxury for my son.

All this sounds good on paper. What if my child does not bloom?! What if my child has no special talents? How long can I afford to give them space?

The bitter truth is, only a few of us have talents that can help bring food to the table. Only a few of us are individualistic enough to build ourselves a career, doing something that we love.

Can we afford to find out this truth by not taking exams seriously?

School is a system that expects conformity more than than anything else. Exams are a way to judge that conformity.

That sounds terrible when put that way, but the truth is all us need to know how to ‘fit in’. An individual needs this skill (yes, it is a skill… for some!) and working hard for exams – the effort involved – is not a bad idea at all.

Children should push themselves to work hard for exams and parents should push their children to push themselves without expectations right from an young age.

The problem is not with effort. The problem is excessive expectations. We (in general) do not tell our child

‘work hard, that is all that you can do. Come what may, I have confidence that will find a way to shine’. I am what I am today because my father told me that many a time: O Captain! My Captain!

Instead we tend to tell them,

‘ work hard or else …’.

Shane Horan
Pci credit: Shane Horan

It is that ‘or else’ that drives children to depression, suicide and low self-esteem about themselves.

So do marks determine the future of our children?  Yes, if we keep needling our children about it. No, if we emphasize on the effort and make our unconditional support clear enough and early enough to them.

What do you think?

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About the Author M Pattabiraman author of freefincal.comM. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the author and owner of  He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras since Aug 2006. Pattu” as he is popularly known, has co-authored two print-books, You can be rich too with goal based investing (CNBC TV18) and Gamechanger and seven other free e-books on various topics of money management.  He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India” an organisation to promote unbiased, commission-free investment advice. Pattu publishes unbiased, promotion-free research, analysis and holistic money management advice. Freefincal serves more than one million readers a year (2.5 million page views) with numbers based analysis on topical issues and has more than a 100 free calculators on different aspects of insurance and investment analysis. He conducts free money management sessions for corporates  and associations(see details below). Previous engagements include World Bank, RBI, BHEL, Asian Paints, TamilNadu Investors Association etc. Contact information: freefincal {at} Gmail {dot} com (sponsored posts or paid collaborations will not be entertained)
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  1. Excellent thought provoking article on Parenting as well education, thanks a lot Pattu Sir for sharing your thoughts which is timely…

    Thanks a lot again…

  2. Right article at right time, I always thought marks/current education system is highly overrated to what one achieves in his life time, at the best it can provide a entry. You have provided a different perspective “conformity” and I agree that is what is needed to be a employee in most cases… Great article Padu. Liked your ending but it’s very subtle and you may want to elaborate as lot of lives are lost

  3. wow,
    your thoughts are of a real parent, yeah we should strike a balance, guide them , leave them , children should find their way.

  4. Dear Pattu Sir
    Apt thought provoking article from you when i am going through this phase in my life. My daughter is going into 11th and she has no clue what she wants to do. Neither have i nurtured any dreams for her. At times i feel confused whether i should have been pushing her like many other parents towards an IIT or medical dreams. But i always pushed her towards studying hard. Your words clarify a lot to me now.

  5. Do marks determine the future of our children?

    it is determined by other things that you didnt want to get in your long writeup

  6. A superb article … extremely thought provocative.. 12th std board exam is going on & my daughter is appearing … I can realize each and every word of the article …. !! I’m going thru’ many dilemmas mentioned by you…!!!

    Hats off …for writing with such clarity …!!

  7. Thought provoking article and timely. If someone’s family has the ability to not expect the kid to follow the set pattern of Colleges/Campus Interviews/Jobs to manage the family economic situation, then Marks are not critical. In today’s world in most of the places like admissions, Campus Interview cut offs, etc Marks play a big role. The kids need to be sensitized about the overall impact and family situation and how to tackle issues alongwith the AFFIRMATION that the family is with them come what may. This will help smooth clearance of the GATES like 12th, College etc.

  8. Hello
    This is Arvind from UK. I regularly follow your blog.
    there is a difference between ” content based ” education and ” an understanding based ” education. this is where Indian and Western education differs.
    I do agree the “marks” are important but what they mean to test – content or an understanding ?

    1. I do agree the “marks” are important but what they mean to test – content or an understanding ? – Does it really matter?
      I live in USA for past 20 years. I always debate which system is best? Rote learning (our system) or more understanding of the subjects?
      Rote leaning is not good for sure, it puts lots of stress on kids who can’t memorize. But what about western side? I know kids work hard 15/20 years during their 9 to 12th grade on too many projects to get very high SAT and other marks to get admission to great /good colleges. (esp Asian parents kids)
      There is no doubt about the facilities at western schools or colleges and no way to compare those schools / colleges with those in India. (except may be few)
      But at the end of day, 80% or more of these western kids end up doing the same job that ‘we’ immigrants are doing at work. Leave the 10 to 20% extreme – lowly talented or very highly talented or genius. We compete very well with these 80% people and at times excel. So in my opinion, each system has its own merits and as long as one has the adaptability, one will succeed in life.

  9. 10th and 12th class marks are important for the college admissions and entry level job. Once you are clear about your career and knows what it takes to succeed in the chosen field, then it does not matter. Parents put unnecessary pressure on the children to get a high 90s% in 12th class as this seem to be the requirement to get into traditional popular careers like Engineering, medicine, Finance etc and children are forced to conform. I have seen lot of kids doing engineering or CA because of parental pressure and “lot of scope to earn well” and not due to any inherent talent or inclination. Nowadays there are huge opportunities for the kids to take up any career and parents should encourage them to find their area of interest and aptitude. It is a crucial time for the kids in 11th and 12th class to find their careers and not come under any parental or peer pressure. Once the kids are clear what they want to do in life, then 12th class will not be a traumatic time for parents and kids.

    1. “Nowadays there are huge opportunities for the kids to take up any career”

      Do not know how REAL this statement is …… as I read some report that shows that India produces about 22mn graduates every year; 60% atleast are not “Job-ready” employable; and out of the rest, a huge% do not get jobs. Majority of the startups crash and lots have lost jobs. We have a huge unemployed young population currently.

      1. True…we have unemployable graduates in the country…could be due to lack of focus by the youngsters or the quality of the institutions churning out the graduates…But that is a different topic altogether.
        The point I want to make is that there are several professional avenues open for the youngsters today to excel in compared to my generation who studied during late 80s and early 90s.

  10. Nice Article!!! A Long way to go myself there. but at this junction,i felt many a times in my past life, Marks would always open up many opportunities for a child/adult. Because marks would again provide the gateway but to attain peak,one have to be really individualistic and well talented.
    it is better, they always score well and if they are individualistic too then it is a one more feather on the cap. pushing is one way but i found other way which is equally tough, implanting/cultivating the interest to score high..One has embrace both in this real world.

  11. Very nice article. I have this dilemma what should I emphasize with my kids. Some times I think I should tell don’t take pressure do your best at any activity. But I am worried what if at a later stage they accuse me of not guiding/forcing them to do more on studies.

  12. Lovely article and very well thought out. I totally agree that marks are very important. But the path should be thoroughly enjoyable too – parents can and should play a big role here. They need to be able to bring out the fun aspect to this that’s far removed from negative pressure, depression, jealousy, etc. Most teachers couldn’t care less.

    Excellence in work and education should really become a habit.

    I look back and recall when my dad refused to buy me a physics book unless I got 1st rank in the class! I know I’ll be a better dad when my time comes!

  13. Teachers have a major role in shaping the children. Since Mr. Pattu is a physicist, here is an example:
    I have had a teacher that told me to solve a problem to calculate force on A due to gravity from B & C in opposite directions. I was told ‘or else’ and I hated the subject and did not get much marks
    I have also had a teacher that told me to position a spaceship between earth and moon such that it would not move in the absence of propulsion. I started loving the subject irrespective of the marks I got and I did get good marks.

    So, simply asking the child to put the effort is to an extent irresponsibility on the part of the society. Simply, kindling the interest of the child would go a long way and the effort would become effortless for the child.

    Here is another good read on the subject:

    1. According to Prof Walter Lewin, if you are bad in Physics(or maths I would add), it is not your fault – your Physics(maths) teachers were poor, absolutely poor 🙂

  14. What an article !!! Really awesome. I read it twice just to let it sink in.
    Thanks a ton for writing this.


  15. Very timely and thought provoking article. Coming from a IIT top faculty , the views expressed must bear lot of wisdom. Finally it is to say—-
    – Hard work does not necessarily take you to lot of marks
    – Lot of marks doesn’t mean lot of intelligence—
    – Intelligence cannot guarantee success–
    — Success does not always lead you to Happiness–
    –Happiness ??

  16. My experience differs from you – I was the most studious boy(who used to play football too) in our extended family, but those with a 10th pass or fail among us has done extremely well in life – either by playing football or farming or doing business. So I am least bothered about marks for my child(though she seems to be after marks:)), the key thing in my opinion is we shouldn’t kill their spirit and confidence. I have seen people unnecessarily pushing their kids for marks to become Doctor or Engineer whereas they were damn good at football or farming.

    To me, marks is the star rating for kids – you need other measures(beta,alpha etc.) to figure out their talents or they are not for the competitive jig(equity), you let them figure out they want and support them.

    I don’t buy your statement that only few of us have the skills to bring hime food – I strongly believe that everyone has some skills it is just that the school pipeline is looking for a particular set. in fat everyone can make some food if they have some land or even a terrace! 🙂

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