What Happens When Parents Pressure Kids to Get Good Grades

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If you want your children to get good grades, you should make sure they know that's your expectation. Right? Maybe not. Research shows that kids may interpret these expectations as pressure. And pressure to perform doesn't help them succeed.

What children think their parents want for them can play a significant role in shaping the children's chances of future success and well-being. Parental pressure to excel in school and extracurricular activities can increase kids' risk of stress, as well as have a negative impact on kids’ well-being and success later in life. This is especially true if parents value grades and achievement over things like empathy, compassion, kindness, and social skills.

Kindness Counts

Researchers at Arizona State University set out to investigate what role parents’ attitudes played on kids’ psychological health and academic performance. They asked 506 sixth graders from an affluent community to rank the top three of six things they believed their parents wanted for them.

Three of the values had to do with personal success, such as getting good grades and having a successful career later in life. The other three values had to do with kindness and decency toward other people. They then compared these responses to how well the children did at school, looking at both grades and behavior reports.

The best outcomes were among kids who believed that their parents valued kindness as much as or more than personal achievements.

On the other hand, children who saw their parents as putting more emphasis on achievements over being kind to others were more likely to experience negative outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, behavior problems, criticism from parents, learning problems—and lower grades.

The clear message: When parents push achievement over compassion and decency, it sets the stage for stress, depression, anxiety, and poorer grades, which can be seen as early as the sixth grade. “Even when only one parent emphasized academic performance, grades were poorer,” says study co-author Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

How to Encourage Your Kids

How children perceive their parents' values plays a significant role in kids’ development, especially as they approach adolescence. Children entering middle school are going through a lot of changes, figuring out who they are and what they think about the world around them. In this time of big transitions, parents’ attitudes about achievement, the examples they set by the way they treat other people, and their parenting style can have a big impact.

There's nothing wrong with encouraging kids to try their best. Problems come up when parents push, criticize, and send the message that kids need to win at all costs, or that their self-esteem should come from external validations (like awards or top grades) instead of positive relationships with others. Use these methods to help kids succeed while supporting them in a healthy, productive way.

Avoid spending too much time talking about hard work. “If you are a parent who is hard-working, has a good career, and a good income, it doesn’t help to push your child,” says Dr. Luthar. Your actions set a clear example, and it's not necessary to constantly repeat the message that they need to get good grades. Instead, be there to support your kids when they hit a problem and let them know that they should be proud of their best efforts.

Don't focus on how they need to win or be the best. “The rest of the world is giving children the message that they need to hurry up and do better; there’s no getting away from that message,” says Dr. Luthar. Given how much pressure kids already face to succeed, it’s more important than ever for parents to focus on good values and provide a “buffer,” or safe space where kids feel supported.

Don't criticize. One of the sure-fire ways to dent kids' self-esteem is to point out their shortcomings and focus on what they did wrong. Instead, help your children come up with ways to solve problems, and let them know that you are proud of their efforts. Stay positive and help them see solutions instead of going negative and harping on the problems.

Another research study, from 2015, found that lectures and punishments are a counterproductive response to bad grades. What actually works: warm parent-child interactions and a home environment that supports and stimulates learning.

Give them the message that kindness counts. As Dr. Luthar's research clearly shows, win-at-all-cost attitudes backfire in the long run. Talk to your kids about the importance of having integrity, showing respect, and exhibiting good manners. Discuss why being unkind, backstabbing others, or being selfish or spoiled can harm relationships. Remind them that friends and family are as important as achievements and awards (if not more so).

Look at your actions as well as your words. If you tell your child that you'll be happy as long as she tries her best, but then criticize her when she doesn't win or become angry when she doesn't earn an A+ in every class: Remember that actions can often speak louder than words, especially when it comes to kids' perceptions.

A Word From Verywell

Encouraging your child to be her best is a good thing, as long as you give her some perspective and do it in moderation. A certain amount of anxiety is good (and can help kids do well on a test, for instance), but too much can be crippling, says Dr. Luthar. Telling kids that only winning counts is "too much of a good thing, with frightening consequences," says Dr. Luthar.

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