KIDS
December 1, 2015

Parents, Dial Down the Pressure

High expectations can be good for kids. But when they are unrealistic, they can backfire.

All parents hope for great things for their children. Educational policies, too, have lately tended to set the bar high when it comes to what they expect of kids. But when it comes to academic success, a new study finds, there’s a fine line between encouraging children to reach for more and pushing kids to achieve good grades. The second of these methods, it turns out, can actually backfire.

“Although parental aspiration can help improve children’s academic performance, excessive parental aspiration can be poisonous.”

A team of researchers in Germany first studied students' math achievement in relation to their parents’ attitudes about their success. In particular, they looked how much parents said they hoped their kids would achieve — their aspirations — in their math grade vs. how much they actually believed their children could achieve — their expectations.

When parents' aspirations were within reason, they were linked to the academic achievement of their kids. Reasonable aspirations led to better achievement. But if parents' aspirations inched higher and higher and overshot their more realistic expectations for their children, they tended to result in lower academic performance in their kids. And this was true regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status, and the children’s intelligence, age, and type of school.

“Our research revealed both positive and negative aspects of parents’ aspiration for their children’s academic performance,” said lead author, Kou Murayama, in a news release. “Although parental aspiration can help improve children’s academic performance, excessive parental aspiration can be poisonous.”

The same pattern was found when the team carried out a similar study in the U.S. involving 12,000 kids over a two-year period. Like the German study, when parental aspirations were too high, kids simply didn’t do as well in school.

The results suggest we may need to reign in how hard we push our kids academically if we really want them to succeed in school. Too much pressure in the form of unrealistic expectations on our parts can end up having the opposite effect we intend.

It's much like the dilemma faced by parents hoping to raise capable, confident kids. An era of laissez-faire parenting gave way to helicopter parenting, which is now giving away to a sort of middle ground.

“Much of the previous literature conveyed a simple, straightforward message to parents — aim high for your children and they will achieve more,” said Murayama. “Unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance. Simply raising aspiration cannot be an effective solution to improve success in education.”

The reason for this may be the additional academic anxiety that kids feel when their parents seem overly focused on achievement. On the parents’ side, excessive control and over-involvement might be a product of too-high aspirations, and may be partially responsible the kids’ performing more poorly.

So when it comes to academics, encourage your kids in more reasonable ways — don’t give them the impression that it’s Harvard or bust. Just knowing that you are proud of them for working hard and trying their best may really be enough.

The study was led by a team at the University of Reading and Kochi University of Technology, and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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