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Why parents shouldn't pressure their kids about grades

Parents who value achievement over kindness can have a negative impact on kids' development, study finds

Photo (c) Monkey Business - Fotolia
Every parent aspires to set their child up for success in adulthood, but pressuring children about their grades may not be the best way to go about achieving this goal, new research suggests.

If the ultimate goal is to raise a well adjusted and successful adult, researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) say you shouldn’t obsess over your child’s grades and extracurricular activities.

Placing too much emphasis on academic performance may lead children to believe that you value achievement over interpersonal kindness, and walking around with this perception isn’t good for kids’ well-being.

“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,” said study co-author Suniya Luthar, Professor at Arizona State University.

“In order to foster well-being and academic success during the critical years surrounding early adolescence, our findings suggest that parents should accentuate kindness and respect for others at least as much as (or more than) stellar academic performance and extracurricular accolades,” Luthar noted.

Study details

Interested in learning how middle school aged children perceive their parents’ values, the researchers focused on 506 sixth grade students from an affluent community. They asked the children to rank the top three of six things their parents valued for them.

Half of the values pertained to personal successes, such as earning good grades and obtaining a successful career as an adult. The other three values centered around kindness and decency towards others.  

After examining underlying patterns in the children’s rankings, the researchers found significant differences between kids who believed their parents valued achievement more than interpersonal kindness and those who believed the opposite.

Mothers and fathers who tended to make their children feel as though achievement is more important than interpersonal kindness had a negative impact on their child’s personal adjustment and academic performance. 

Valuing kindness over achievements

The best outcomes, Luthar noted, were seen among children who perceived their mothers and fathers as each valuing kindness toward others as much as, or more than, achievements. Poorer outcomes were evident among children who perceived either parent to value their achievements more than their kindness to others.

Luthar concluded that these findings demonstrate the value of social connection and in placing the emphasis on values such as compassion and decency during a child’s formative years.

“It is beneficial for kids to be strongly connected with their social networks, whereas focusing too much on external validations (such as grades, extra-curricular honours) for their sense of self-worth can lead to greater insecurity, anxiety and overall distress,” she added.
But praising good grades and encouraging achievement, in itself, isn't bad, said co-author Lucia Ciciolla. The trouble comes 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 study has been published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.  

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