The Negative Effects of Pressuring Kids to Get Good Grades

Why focusing only on kids' achievement can have negative effects

Mom and son on computer, smiling
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How would your child respond if someone were to ask him which you would want more, for him to learn how to be kind to others or for him to get good grades? Would your child say that you are a parent who cares about things like compassion, empathy, and respect for others or someone who wants their child to bring home top grades and excel at extracurricular activities without consideration for other people?

The answer, it turns out, could be an important indicator of how your child fares later in life. Research shows that what kids think their parents want for them can play a significant role in shaping a child’s chances of future success and well-being. When parents pressure kids to excel in school and activities, especially if they emphasize grades and achievement over things like compassion and social skills, it can have a negative impact on kids’ well-being and success later in life and increase their risk of stress, according to a November 2016 study by researchers at Arizona State University. In other words, kindness counts.

The Cons of Pushing Kids to Achieve Over Everything Else

Given that the pressure to succeed is greater than ever today as kids face increased competition for academic and career success, the researchers set out to find 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, and 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.

They found that 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 the study’s co-author Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University and professor emerita of Columbia University's Teachers College.

The values that children perceive their parents to have plays a significant role in kids’ development, especially at this age. 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 significant impact on their development.

How Parents Should Encourage Kids

While there's nothing wrong with encouraging kids to try their best, the problem seems to occur when parents push, criticize, and give kids the message that they need to win at all costs or that their self-esteem should come from external validations like awards or top grades instead of positive and happy relationships with others. Here are some ways parents can help kids succeed while supporting them in a healthy and productive way.

Try not to constantly talk to your kids about how they need to work hard. “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. Given how much pressure kids already face today to succeed, it’s more important than ever for parents to focus on good values and support rather than criticize and provide a “buffer,” says Dr. Luthar. “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.”

Never 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.

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

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's not the best at something, remember that actions can often speak louder than words, especially when it comes to kids' perceptions.

Bottom Line

Remember that encouraging your child to be her best is a good thing, as long as you give your child some perspective and do it in moderation. Ask yourself how your child would respond to the survey questions about your own values. If the answer is that they would say you value good grades and achievements over everything else, take a step back and make some changes in your actions and words.

Just as a certain amount of anxiety is good (and can help kids do well on a test, for instance). 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.

While the findings shed light on the harmful effects of parenting pressure, it is important to note the limitations of the cross-sectional study. Without additional research, it would be difficult to draw conclusions. 

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