When looking at outcomes in the areas of academic achievement, sports achievement, and all-round success, parental involvement can be either a liability or an asset1—it all depends on how parents go about meeting the core emotional need for realistic expectations (RR18.1). Based on the huge amount of expenses, worry, and anxiety that accompany parents’ expectations in the area of their children’s academic performance, we will speak mostly about academic expectations; however, this discussion can be applied to other types of expectations.
What Causes Parents to Be A Liability?
Parental involvement must take into account the parent’s dynamics with the child. For example, when some parents hear about the positive outcomes of parental involvement, they decide to monitor their children several times a day, and push their children to achieve at exceptional levels, while being critical of their children’s mistakes. These parents, in the name of love, are unaware of the harm they are inflicting on their children!
How parents convey their expectations, the quality of their relationship with their children, whether their children still feel accepted after making mistakes, and the level of criticism from parents all make a huge difference in the outcome of children’s academic performances. We are not advocating low expectations—it is all about what kind of expectations and how they are communicated, i.e., that’s why it is called the core need for realistic expectations.
What Helps Parents To Be An Asset?
When parents are meeting the first three core emotional needs, especially when connection is strong, parental involvement will be an asset. At the risk of sounding repetitive, we will remind parents yet again how important it is for them to take care to meet the first core need for connection and acceptance. The Heritage Foundation in 2008 revealed that a sensitive, warm, and responsive style of parenting and engaging in play activities with young children bolsters not just their social and emotional development, but also their communication skills and ability to focus, both crucial for achievement.2 And teens whose parents are more involved and who feel they receive more support from their parents are more likely to participate in structured after-school activities that, in turn, are positively correlated with achievement and social competence.3
Parents of sixth graders in Singapore wait in agony every November—that’s when the grades for the national standardized Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) come out. In my work as a family educator, I (John) always remind anxious parents not to get too worried. (No mean feat, since this particular exam determines which “high school” their children will attend; the students are ranked according to their score and only those with the highest scores are eligible for the more sought-after schools.) One year, I asked a group of mothers whose children had tested well above the national average how they “felt” about their children’s scores. Their answers were telling—most of them were disappointed; from their perspective, their children should have done even better. I also spoke privately with their children. Even though their scores would get them into good schools, they were disappointed by their results and felt that they had let their parents down. For some, their parents hadn’t said anything negative, but their mom’s facial expression or their dad’s body language had revealed it all. I felt compelled to let the mothers know their exaggerated expectations were endangering their children’s mental health, not to mention ruining any connection they might have. I told them that their children would put two and two together: if they only got praised when they did exceedingly well, they would conclude that their parents only accepted them when they “performed”; they would feel exasperated; and their need for connection and acceptance would not be met. Eventually, these moms understood how they were hurting their children and began working on repairing and reconnecting.
Parents who have a good connection with their children and desire healthy involvement should monitor children’s activities outside the home and school; set rules; engage in conversations about and help with school work and school-related issues; establish educational expectations; discuss and plan for future; help them with important decisions; participate in school-related activities such as meeting with teachers and volunteering in the classroom; read together, and do other enrichment and leisure activities together.
The rest of this chapter contains strategies about how parental involvement can be an asset, rather than a liability.
Parents Must Prioritize Their Marriage
Before we discuss the dynamics between parent and child, we have to again remind parents that the quality of their marriage has a direct correlation to the quality of their parenting. Please re-read the portion of Chapter Two devoted to making sure parents understand how crucial this point is!
We add this specific bit of research here since it is directly related to expectations about school achievement: the overwhelming research indicates that divorce has a significantly negative effect on children’s academic performance. In fact, children whose fathers have died do better in school than children whose parents are divorced.4 It is speculated that children are able to attribute a more positive meaning from a death, however painful, than when their parents go through a divorce. In the case of divorce, children have been known to blame themselves, which usually does not happen in the event of a parent’s death. In fact, children from divorced families are statistically less likely to graduate from higher education and more likely to have difficulties obtaining employment.5
Please note: we are making a big deal out of all of these marriage statistics not to shame single parents—in fact, we salute you for your hard work and perseverance. To you we say, beat the odds! These are statistics, not an absolute indicator of your future. What we mean to do is to impress upon readers who are married the importance of prioritizing their marriage. (RR18.2)
Set Learning-Oriented Goals, Not Performance-Oriented Goals
The combination of the two different studies below shows how setting learning-oriented goals helps parents to be an asset rather than a liability.
Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck has received worldwide recognition for her decades-long study of motivation. Her work on academic expectations distinguishes between two kinds of orientations: parents who encourage their children to focus on learning for learning’s sake, and parents who push their children to attain high grades.6 Dweck and her colleagues called the former “learning-oriented”, and found that learning-oriented parents tend to (a) emphasize the need to enjoy learning, (b) encourage progress towards their child’s potential, (c) inspire their child to seek out challenges, and (d) reward effort over results. The parents who were more concerned with high grades and outcomes they called, “performance-oriented”. These parents tend to (a) believe that success in performance signifies competence and a high degree of intelligence, (b) feel that having a highly intelligent child brings personal recognition, (c) have a desire for that kind of recognition, and (d) expect their child to secure a prestigious job and earn a high salary.7
Sixth-grade students (12-year-olds) at the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth were measured for perfectionistic tendencies and then divided into two groups—healthy perfectionists and dysfunctional perfectionists.8 “Healthy perfectionists” were defined as children who had high scores on being unusually organized and driven, but had relatively low scores in areas related to fear of making mistakes, concern about parents’ criticism and self-doubt after taking action. Conversely, the “dysfunctional perfectionists” had high scores in all the aforementioned areas, and were more likely to describe themselves as defensive, anxious, moody, and socially detached—characteristics that hinder academic achievement and lead to social and emotional problems.9
The Johns Hopkins’ researchers used Dweck’s categories and discovered that children of “performance-oriented” parents were significantly more likely to fall into the “dysfunctional perfectionism” group than children of parents with learning-oriented goals, leaving them vulnerable to social and emotional problems,10 such as depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, migraine, procrastination and suicidal tendencies. Another bit of research on motivation found that children who feel loved conditionally based on academic achievement were more likely to develop the schemas of defectiveness, failure, social isolation (see Chapter Five), entitlement (see Chapter Twelve), and unrelenting standards (see Chapter Sixteen). (RR18.3)
Special note from John: Those of us from Asian backgrounds need to listen up—The Johns Hopkins’ researchers also noted that 69% of Asian parents had performance-oriented goals, while only 25% of Caucasian parents had them.11 (This is such a common state of mind in Singaporeans that there is actually a local slang word for it: “kan cheong”.) Whether it’s over grades, sports, music and other hobbies—the performance-oriented disposition almost always brings disastrous results. How many children have we seen who struggle with the maladies listed above, or at the very least with migraines and digestive system malfunctions, all because of parent-generated anxiety? Remember the Basic Safety Zone—we should not let our unrealistic expectations put our children in harm’s way. This is not Good Enough Parenting.
During our daughter’s first two years of elementary school, I (John) was a performance-oriented/kan cheong parent: when Sonia didn’t perform up to “my standard” in math, I assumed that she was not trying hard. It did not occur to me that her strengths might lie in other areas, or that she might need some extra work or have a different learning style than I have. My wife challenged me about the way I was speaking with my daughter and showed me the folly of my ways. As I grappled with this knowledge, I saw my daughter really, really trying, and it moved me. In fact, one day she told me that she felt “stupid”. My heart went out to her and I realized I had contributed to her feelings. From then on, I focused on her effort. We even celebrated when she got a ‘C’. It was an occasion that I truly enjoyed. I changed, and I was happy that I had changed. Even better, Sonia was encouraged and became more joyful, and didn’t run so far away when it was time to do math with Dad!
Do Not Control with Punishment, Praise or Reward
A child’s level of curiosity will drive him or her to investigate, ask questions, and make numerous attempts at one task. They are enthusiastically driven to explore and grow; like sponges, they absorb everything around them. They rarely distinguish between work and play because they are having so much fun doing both at the same time.
Edward Deci, the motivation expert we mentioned in Chapters Nine & Eleven, has spent years studying children of all ages. Deci noticed that most of the learning done by preschool children is done not because it is instrumental for achieving something else, but because the children are curious: they want to know. Deci would say children are intrinsically-motivated,12 but that made him wonder, given their natural propensity for learning, what causes children’s attitudes to change as they grow older? Deci performed many experiments to evaluate the effect of rewards and punishments on motivation. What he found was that motivation through rewards over time actually did not promote an excited state of learning, but a sad state of apathy.13
When he used money as a reward, Deci observed that once the participants started getting paid, they lost interest in the activity and did not do as well. Rewards, he concluded, turned the act of playing into something controlled from the outside. When this happened, play became work and the player, a pawn. Deci deduced that rewards eventually have a negative effect on people’s intrinsic motivation.
Not surprisingly, Deci obtained even worse results when he used punishment as a motivator. Deadlines, goals, and tight surveillance are frequently-used methods that are supposed to help people to get results. Deci strongly believes that both materialistic rewards and threats of punishment ultimately destroy children’s (and adults’) enthusiasm and interest.
Unfortunately, many parents rely on short-term strategies, but progress made based on threats and even rewards rarely lasts. Deci and his colleague, Richard Ryan, argue that rewards given with a controlling style have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation and leave people feeling more pressured and less interested. On the other hand, when rewards are extended in a non-controlling way as an acknowledgment of good work, they will not produce detrimental effects. Their perspective seems to suggest that it is the controlling intent of rewards that sabotages one’s attempts to motivate others, by destroying the very motivation that they had been intended to promote.14
We have to be very careful about how we administer rewards: It is a real test of parents’ motives to offer rewards to their children in a non-controlling way! The next time you consider saying, “If you get all As, I will give you. . . .”, or even the alternative “If you don’t make an A, you’ll be grounded . . .”, change your mind, reject these so-called “motivational techniques” and decide to be an asset, instead of a liability.
When parents praise their children in front of visitors, from time to time, it sends a positive message. Even if children are pretending that they are not listening, parents should do it anyway. I, John, remember a time when my dad encouraged me in front of my siblings for having a tidy desk. I was doing terribly at school, and two of my brothers were A students, but my dad noticed my desk. That did a lot to cement the connection with my dad, and eventually my grades turned around anyway. Now, it is important to note that we are not talking about boorish parents who boast about their children’s achievements non stop; rather, we are highlighting a way of encouraging tentative children and letting them know that they are believed in.
Another fun yet indirect way that parents can encourage their children in front of others is to try “Resource Gossip”—a tool devised by Mark McKergow, a Solution-Focused consultant based in the UK. He recommends “gossiping” positively about a person in front of them with colleagues, or in the case of a child, with the family.15 You speak as though the child were not there, and say, for example, in the case of an eight-year-old girl, “Honey (wife to husband), do you know what I heard about Janie? She is kind to the girls at school, even though that sometimes upsets the popular girls.” “Really? Wow, I bet she is proud of herself for having her own convictions.” “I bet she is, too.” or “Freddie, what did you notice about your little sister recently?” “Well, I’m happy that she doesn’t come into my room and take my stuff so often.” “Hmmm . . . looks like she is growing up to be a considerate and caring young lady.” Just watch little Janie beam and blush as she hears sincere comments from her favorite people!
However, there are some parents and teachers who resort to aggravating children with pessimism, an approach that they call “Negative Psychology”. Essentially, they use negative threats in order to induce fear, and employ put-downs by telling the children that they are not good enough, in an endeavor to motivate the latter to do better. These adults genuinely believe negative messages and fear will offer greater motivation than positive messages!
Now, when parents and teachers alike are so stingy with encouragement, such that a kid has to distinguish himself on a supersonic level just to get any encouragement, what kind of message is the child receiving? How often in life does that kind of achievement happen? Once a year? Once a decade? Surely this would lead to some kind of exasperation.
Focus on Who Your Children Are, Not What They Do; On the Inside, Not the Outside
Do you truly appreciate effort, instead of grades? One mother we know who has a son with learning difficulties threw her child a party after he received his PSLE / end of elementary school grades, not because they were “high” compared to the other kids, but because she appreciated the work and effort he had put into his studies. She wanted him to know that she was very proud of him. We hold her up as a mom who understands how to be an asset in her child’s academic life, not a liability.
When we praise our children for doing something well because of the effort they put in, we should do so without making any comparison with others. Thus, we should avoid making statements such as:
You made us proud by becoming first in the class.
You made us happy by doing what you should, like we expected.
You made us look good because you scored straight A’s.
You were the best actor/actress in the entire play.
If your encouragement is based on what they actually achieve, what happens when they do not achieve the same results the next time round? Then no matter what you say, it will have little effect on them.
Rather, you should direct praise at their effort, and not in a comparative way:
You worked so hard for your exam . . .
You gave it your best and I am proud of you.
I really admire the heart and spirit you put into playing basketball.
Wow, you were amazing in the musical! You are really good at acting.
Look out for other qualities that you may not have noticed or thought were important. This list will get you started:
• helpfulness—helping siblings, classmates
• empathy—putting self in another’s shoes
• cooperativeness—cooperating with others in the house
• effort—making the effort to do well in their studies, not just getting good grades
• tidiness—in own room or in whole house
• joyfulness—showing joy and being fun
• forgiveness and compassion—with family members or others
• sense of humor—making others laugh but not at anyone’s expense
• patience—waiting without grumbling
• politeness—takes patience
• caring—having a heart for others.
When you witness these qualities, take your child aside and tell them how much you appreciate them. This is much more effective than just praising the outcome of an exam or a competition. Encourage them. Our children do a lot of good things, but we do not always notice; we should not miss the opportunity to acknowledge the good in our children.
Furthermore, when you encourage your children, be specific. General and ambiguous praise can have a negative effect on children because they may think their parents are insincere. Just saying, “Great job”, or “You are awesome”, without referencing any specific actions, will not lift their spirits.
One of the children we have known since he was born developed anxiety and stress issues. His mother has hounded her son year in and year out to the point that we were worried for him. He had even talked about suicide. I (John) had a counseling session with the boy who told me that his number one source of stress was the fact that he stopped getting first place in his class (just that year). He cried and said, “I do not have any other talents and by not getting first, I feel useless.”
Deci and his colleagues found that university students who said they had complied with their parents’ conditional love/controlling approval when they were younger ended up resenting and disliking their parents! Yikes! They also found that moms who had felt this way to their parents more often than not turned around and did it to their own children16—truly dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving! So while children may perform for a time when their parents have exaggerated expectations for them, they also suffer from pressure and unhappiness trying to live up to the expectations. Moreover, the adverse effects of conditional parenting apply not only to high school and college students, but also to adult children.17 (RR18.4)
When parents focus on what their children do instead of who they are, their children will very likely conclude that they are not accepted and loved by their parents unconditionally. Their negative thinking will slowly erode their emotional security towards their parents and undermine their self-esteem. This is why we have heard so many adolescents say:
I don’t care about my exams, why should I?
I am just working to get my parents off my back.
I need to do well so that I can get a job that pays me a lot one day.
These children have very little natural drive. They lack spark and joy, and project a flat demeanor. They are sometimes knows as underachievers—a subject we will now discuss in greater detail.
Learn to Motivate “Underachievers”
Underachievement relates to the discrepancy between the child’s ability and his or her actual achievement.18 These students tend to be disorganized, lose assignments, misplace books, daydream, and forget to do their homework. They spend most of their energy and time on television, computer games, and phones. Underachievers often blame their teachers or school for their poor grades, and prioritize sports or computers or music or social life (anything!) over academics. However, beneath the carefree facade:
• Underachievers don’t believe they can reach their goals, even if they were to work hard. The defectiveness and failure lifetraps are triggered at the thought of trying harder. If they have a surrendered coping style, they “fulfill the prophecy” of their inner voice that says that they can’t reach healthy goals.
• If underachievers do not think that they can win, they will not bother trying. Essentially, they would rather not try than to try and be disappointed out of fear their flaws will be exposed. Instead, they opt to brag about the low grade they managed to achieve without studying.
• While this attitude helps them feel better about themselves temporarily, there is a constant inner voice that tells them to counterattack their sense of defectiveness and failure. As this voice grows stronger, they will become even more afraid of losing. What underachievers should realize is that, even when they lose, they can still learn valuable lessons that will enable them to triumph at other times.
• Some underachievers are driven by the dependence lifetrap. They do not feel confident about performing their own tasks and believe they always need someone beside them to guide them and to succeed. They have low self-esteem about their ability to perform tasks by themselves.
• Some underachievers have magical thinking, associated with the entitlement lifetrap. They believe that things will suddenly change for the better later in life and they will become extremely well off. Indulging in magical thinking helps them alleviate their sense of defectiveness by reassuring themselves that everything will turn out alright even when they make no effort.
• Many struggle with the lifetrap of insufficient self-control—they have not learned how to persevere through a task. They do not know what it means to really make an effort; thus, the have an unrealistic view of what it takes to perform a task well.
In the case of underachievers, giving them realistic expectations will increase their confidence. As they learn to complete tasks and even excel, their motivation will increase. Parents—if your child is in this category, do not insist they jump through the same hoops as their peers—take your expectation down a few notches and work up to things gradually. Otherwise you risk your child feeling that their failure is a confirmation of the little voice that tells them there is no point trying.
Our advice is that if children are not motivated, parents should allow the natural consequence of school to take effect. Research has confirmed that children are more likely to apply themselves with determination when they receive less pressure and criticism from parents (RR18.5); they will understand where they had gone wrong when the feedback comes from another source like their teachers.
Learn about Multiple Intelligences and Identify Your Children’s Gifts
We do not have the space here to do this subject justice, but we implore you, if you are struggling with having realistic expectations for your children, to read up on the theory of “Multiple Intelligences”. Howard Gardner, from Harvard University, is the pioneer on the subject. For several decades, he and his team of researchers and scientists have validated his theory of the existence of different intelligences in the brain. Gardner advocates exposing children to different experiences, media, and learning styles so that all children have the possibility to be their best.
When we teach this part of our workshop, we describe the eight intelligences that Gardner has proven to date: logical/mathematical, verbal/linguistic, musical, spatial, environmental, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.19 Based on this theory, we try to help parents see that statistically, it is not possible for children to be gifted in all subject areas, nor is it probable for all children to be gifted in math! We beg them to not be disappointed if their children do not excel in mathematics and science—there are other paths to success and happiness! Then we explain how to nurture all eight intelligences to see which ones their children seem to naturally gravitate toward.
My mom taught me to read when I (Karen) was four and I devoured everything in my small town school’s library by the time I finished elementary school. Reading came easily to me so I’d always assumed that my daughter would be a voracious reader as well. We read to her since she was born, and her room was filled with books. However, when Sonia still didn’t get into reading by the time she was in the fourth grade, I felt like the world’s worst mother. I had followed all the tips, but still, she just wasn’t like me, and my narcissistic parent self couldn’t help but feel disappointed! Thankfully, my wonderful husband, who had recently stopped being a freak-out math dad a year earlier, opened my eyes by pointing out that Sonia had won a national tennis tournament when she was just nine years old—how many trophies had I won at nine? Or ever? “Let Sonia be Sonia and she will develop her own strengths, and don’t be so egotistical that you think she has to be just like you!” (He probably was a bit nicer than that, but I remember it that way!) That was very sound advice; I stopped worrying about Sonia’s reading. The irony of it all—in university she ended up majoring in English Literature!
Don’t Let Yourself Jump to the Worst Case Scenario
Such a mind-set can make meeting your children’s core emotional needs difficult, because it is hard to have realistic expectations when you are always in a worst-case scenario mode. Below are two stories of people we have counseled, still traumatized by the memories of their parents’ overreaction to relatively small issues.
Because her mother expected everything to be perfect, Sterling was petrified of doing anything wrong. One evening, as the family was getting ready to go out for dinner, Sterling’s mother yelled at her for taking too long to put on her shoes. In a panic, Sterling put her shoes on the wrong feet. In the car, the yelling continued because her mother then berated her for not just being slow, but also being so stupid as to confuse her left with her right feet. Sterling was so upset and traumatized by the event that even at 40 years old she can still remember how she felt when her mother completely overreacted to her “mistake”.
Each day, after coming home from work, Zach’s father would watch his son do his homework. After Zach completed it, his dad would test him to see if he knew the material. On several occasions, when Zach did not quite grasp the material, his father would be physically abusive to him. Zach ended up hating school, studying only to please his father and escape punishment. Due to burnout, Zach eventually dropped out of school, traumatized by his father’s overreacting.
These parents were overreacting as if their entire world were coming to an end. A good question to ask would be, “What could the worst possible outcome of this mistake be?” Really, what concerns are worth worrying about? Is the child’s well-being or health in jeopardy, for example? Is he sick? Does he have to be admitted to a hospital? Does the child have to be taken to the police? Has the child committed grievous hurt against another? Most of the time, 90% of our worries and concerns do not even come true. Even if they do, what is the worst thing that can happen?
Let’s look back at our examples: What would be the worst-case scenario of a child taking a bit more time to get dressed? You might be a bit late for dinner! And if you have to catch a flight, one of the parents could help dress the child on the way. Is that such a bad thing? The parent could use the car ride to have a great time singing as a family, or if the appointment were not so urgent, the parent could have allowed time for the child to get dressed herself and then praised her for doing a great job. A wonderful experience is lost because the parent’s reaction is disproportionate to the mistake made.
What is the worst-case scenario if a child cannot remember all the material he has studied? Not to worry—he just needs to keep working and eventually he will get there. And should he fail a test, he will learn how to do better next time. Is this situation worth imprinting a negative emotional scar on your child?
Mistakes can be a good opportunity for teaching, bonding, and connecting. Mistakes, when not viewed negatively by parents, can lead both sides to engage in meaningful conversation, with everyone reflecting together. Both parent and child can turn the entire situation into laughter; a potentially heavy moment is instead transformed into a light moment. Sadly, parents often turn small mistakes into lifelong scars.
Let us seek to transform day-to-day mistakes into discussions in which the child learns; at times, the very nature of these discussions may even lead to laughter and light moments. Through mistakes, taking calculated risks here and there, trial and error, our children will learn to spread their wings. They will be boys and girls, and eventually adults, who are neither compliant nor defiant; they will acknowledge their strengths and limitations, embracing life, and us, with zest and enthusiasm.
I (Karen) attended a small West Texas farming community high school with a graduating class of 40 kids. In my sophomore year, I took Chemistry and had absolutely no interest in the subject whatsoever. When the end-of-quarter exam came, the teacher gave all the top students an exemption; so only a few other non-science types and I took the test. I scored 57/100 (the passing grade was 60) and worried about how I would tell my dad. (Though my parents were not overbearing in the least, it was a given in our home that one should strive to live up to his or her potential. Plus, I had never flunked an exam before, so I was a bit nervous.) The ensuing conversation went like this:
Karen (with a big smile): Dad, we got our exam grades back this week. I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
Dad: Tell me the good news.
Karen: The good news is that I scored the highest grade in the class on my Chemistry final.
Dad (with a surprised look): Well, that is good news. And what’s the bad news?
Karen (looking a bit sheepish): It was a 57.
Dad (silence): . . . Well, I’ve only got one thing to say.
Karen (with trepidation): What’s that?
Dad (with a cheeky smile): When you go to college one day, you’d better major in business so you don’t have to take any science classes!
Karen (relieved): Thanks, Dad!
The sequel to this story is: 30 years later I attended a workshop called “Helping Children Deal With Stress”. The Australian lecturer asked for a volunteer from the audience to share a personal story of how they dealt with failure. I shared this story and when I got to the punch line about not taking science in university, the crowd of over 100 people burst into spontaneous applause!
What a wonderful story of a father with realistic expectations (in this case, extremely realistic!) and a daughter who benefited from having her core emotional needs met. (I’ve wondered my whole life, why I got such nice parents!)