Headlines about the intense pressure that high school students in upper-middle-class communities face to succeed and get accepted in a good college are common. A November 2016 study by Lucia Ciciolla and her colleagues shows that middle schoolers also perceive the pressure to achieve, and it’s linked to both poorer well-being and worse grades.
The researchers asked sixth graders in an affluent community to rank the top three out of six possible values their parents might hold for them. The set of values consisted of three related to achievement (attend a good college; excel academically; have a successful career in the future) and three related to kindness (be respectful to others; try to help others in need; be kind to others). Based on these rankings, each student received a score for achievement-focus and kindness-focus for each parent. (It’s important to note that placing a high value on kindness doesn’t mean parents don’t value achievement; it’s a matter of emphasis.) The investigators also measured children’s perceptions of how critical their parents are.
Results showed that when children perceived that both of their parents value kindness as much or more than achievement, they were better off both psychologically and academically. Compared to kids who perceived their parents as valuing achievement more than kindness, they had higher self-esteem, fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and better school performance. The worst-off children were those who experienced at least one parent valuing achievement over kindness and also perceived a high degree of parental criticism.
Plausible Doesn’t Mean Causal
This was a questionnaire-based, cross-sectional study, so we can’t conclude that when parents value achievement over kindness it causes problems for kids. While that’s a plausible idea, this study doesn’t prove it. The study doesn’t measure a parent’s behavior or actual values. It’s possible that children who are more distressed might be prone to see their parents as more negative and demanding. It’s also possible that the causal direction is reversed: poorer academic performance might trigger parental criticism and emphasis on achievement. It’s easy to imagine how the parents of a child who is doing poorly in school might put a lot of focus on academics. It’s also possible that some other factor, such as family stress, causes both a sense of pressure to achieve and poorer functioning.
Communicating Our Values About Achievement
The study does, however, raise some interesting questions for parents to think about regarding what values we communicate to our children and how we do this. Most parents want their children to do well and to be kind. Ciciolla and colleagues suggest that in communities where there is a great deal of emphasis on external achievement, parents can play an important role in counterbalancing that with a message about the importance of kindness.
Kids learn more from what we do than from what we say. It’s worth thinking about what our actions might be telling our kids about our priorities.
Do we know their friends? Do we make time to get together with other families? Do we chat with them about their interests and nourish their curiosity? Do we recognize and encourage acts of kindness? Do we model kindness in how we interact with our family members? Do our kids see us going out of our way to help others? Are we connected to our communities in meaningful ways? How do we relate to people who are different from us?
How do our children see us reacting to our own work? Do they see the interest, enjoyment, and balance—or just nonstop stress?
When our kids do need our help with schoolwork, are we able to give it in a way that communicates our faith in their ability to learn and grow? Do we involve them in coming up with plans and solutions? Are our expectations realistic for this particular child at this particular time? Do we offer encouragement for progress?
The middle school years are an important time when children begin to develop their own sense of values. As parents, it makes sense for us to try to guide them toward values that will bring them both fulfillment and success—whatever that means to them.
Ciciolla, L., Curlee, A. S., Karageorge, J., & Luthar, S. S. (2016). When mothers and fathers are seen as disproportionately valuing achievements: implications for adjustment among upper middle class youth. Journal of youth and adolescence, 9, 1-19.