I don’t know about you but I remember my early school years fondly. Homework was minimal and we spent our evenings playing with friends, creating art or lego masterpieces and maybe taking part in one or two organized activities each week. Fast forward to 2016 and our kids are growing up in a very different time, where the pressure for academic success begins at a much younger age, there is an epidemic of over-scheduling and unsurprisingly childhood stress and mental health problems are on the rise. Recently an 8 year old informed me that he had already picked his Ivy League College! New research suggests that this trend is harming our children and may cause long term problems.

The Research

A fascinating article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence,in November 2016, presents the results of a study of 506 sixth graders in an affluent community. They looked at the effects of parental values and how children’s perceptions of what their parents valued, on school performance, grade point average and in-class behaviors.

When parents emphasize children’s achievement much more than their compassion and decency during the formative years, they are sowing the seeds of stress and poorer well-being

The Results

Suniya Luthar one of the co-authors of the study and a professor of psychology at ASU reported that “when parents emphasize children’s achievement much more than their compassion and decency during the formative years, they are sowing the seeds of stress and poorer well-being, seen as early as sixth grade.” When parents over-emphasized achievement, children learned to rely on external validations and developed low self-esteem. They experienced increased feelings of insecurity, anxiety and distress, lower grades, more learning problems and increased disruptive behavior. When children perceived that their parents valued kindness over achievement they performed better academically.  Co-author Lucia Ciciolla added “our data did not show that encouraging achievement in itself is bad. It becomes destructive when it comes across as critical, and when it overshadows, or does not co-exist with, a simultaneous value on more intrinsic goals that are oriented toward personal growth, interpersonal connections and community well-being.”

The Recommendations

It’s incredibly hard to get the balance right as a parent. If you are too relaxed you worry that your child will be unmotivated and underachieve: if you are too strict that they will become stressed or rebel against you. This research offers a fascinating insight into how a child’s perception of what their parent values affects their academic success and wellbeing.

The study suggests that if parents want their children to have good self-esteem and better grades and a lower the risk of stress, maladjustment and psychological, learning and behavioral problems they should consider:

  • Avoid pushing children towards “stellar academic performance and extracurricular accolades… at the expense of maintaining close relationships to others”.

  • Limit criticism and pressure to achieve, for young children. Be wary of the tone you use, as sometimes encouragement can appear to be criticism.

  • Encourage, praise and place more value on developing social networks, social skills, kindness, personal decency and respect (prosocial behavior).

Source

Ciciolla, Lucia, Alexandria S. Curlee, Jason Karageorge, and Suniya S. Luthar. "When Mothers and Fathers Are Seen as Disproportionately Valuing Achievements: Implications for Adjustment Among Upper Middle Class Youth." Journal of Youth and Adolescence(2016): n. pag. Web.

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