Your Teen is Likely More Successful Than you Think

Be honest. How do you judge your teen’s success? Do you mostly pay attention to his quizzes and test scores? If you responded “yes” and didn’t think to include other markers of achievement such as independence or adaptability, psychologist Madeline Levine, bestselling author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success and co-founder of Challenge Success, wants to change your thinking.

Challenge Success is an initiative of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. The program encourages a broader definition of success, one that goes far beyond grade point averages. With practical research-based tools, the program has already reached more than 450 schools across the country. Your school can explore many of the organization’s free resources here.  

In this Q&A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a wide-ranging conversation with Levine, who is also a mother of three adult sons.

Madeline Levine, cofounder Challenge success, headshot
Madeline Levine, PhD

Allison Gilbert: You say parents often spend too much time judging teenagers by how they perform in the classroom. Instead, you argue more emphasis should be placed on “soft skills.” What are you referring to, and why are they so important?

Madeline Levine: First, let me say I use the expression “soft skills” reluctantly. It’s the term so many of us use when we consider these abilities – but the words actually give the wrong impression.  “Soft skills” makes it seem they’re easy to acquire, that individuals don’t have to work hard to develop them. But they’re often hard for many people to cultivate. 

The skills I’m referring to are: creativity, curiosity, informed risk taking, and mental agility. Mental agility refers to the ways individuals deal with perceived threats and uncertainty and their ability to get up and go again when they fail. It’s harder to judge these skills, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We know academic success isn’t the only measure of success. 

AG: Is it difficult to inspire parents to shift their thinking about success? How do you go about changing their point of view?

ML: Yes, it’s hard! But we lay out the proven case for this kind of thinking: All of the top companies we’ve talked with, including Google, say routine academic success doesn’t count the same way anymore, and that many top jobs don’t require going to college at all.  

Failure is a tough sell for parents. But not succeeding is a huge learning experience.

AG: One especially charged topic is failure. Parents may be open to their teen trying a fresh approach to schoolwork but they’re also nervous any experimentation may backfire. Why is failure important to a teenager’s growth, and how do you suggest parents and students embrace it?

ML: Failure is a tough sell for parents. But not succeeding is a huge learning experience.  How many people do you know who’ve enjoyed a straight line to success? Or is it more likely a jig jagged path?  

AG: We know teenagers benefit when parents are engaged in their lives. But is it possible for parents to be too involved? Meaning, what’s the right balance between being available and providing enough independence and space?

ML: We encourage parents to pay attention to where their teens are developmentally.  And there is indeed a calculus for that. Take a look at the last task your daughter had. How did she do? Did she succeed? How about your son? Did he obey his curfew? Then, maybe he’s ready for a later curfew. Teenagers need opportunities to do right, make mistakes, and gain independence. These types of measurable experiences contribute to a teen’s ability to self-regulate, which is important for avoiding sex, drugs, and other potential hazards.

AG: As co-founder of Challenge Success and in your writing as an author, you investigate the stress and anxiety so many teens are experiencing today. What are your top strategies for helping adolescents manage social and academic pressure?

ML: Number one is to take time to reflect and slow down. Downtime is so important! This is when teens get to consider what’s happening in their lives. It’s also when they figure out who they want to be. The second is to find activities during which they’re in control and call the shots. This kind of time, best if unstructured, is when they come to understand they can solve problems without adult intervention.

AG: Are you working on a new book?

ML: I sure am, thanks for asking! I’m writing about best parenting practices in an uncertain world. We’re living in a new era. The velocity of change around us is unprecedented, and we all — parents and teens — have to adjust. The book will reveal the skills we need to be successful, across many and varied definitions of success.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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