Madeline Levine Ph. D.

The Twenty-Year Parenting Plan

School Success and Parent's Faulty Thinking

Why trying to help your kid be an academic success can harm.

Posted Aug 28, 2012

This is Part II in a two-part series of posts. To see the previous post, click here.

Last week I wrote about how we, as parents, would do anything to see our kids happy and successful. But in our quest to give our kids the best of everything, we can actually end up harming our children.

This week I expand on my last post's list of common, culturally-sanctioned parenting decisions that can actually have the opposite of the intended effects on our kids. With the start of the new school year just around the corner, here are a few educational examples you might recognize:

What You THINK You’re Doing: “By pushing my child academically, I’m ensuring his place in an Ivy League school. He’ll be set for life.”

What You’re ACTUALLY Doing: You’re putting him under great stress. Not only does this make him miserable now, it may inhibit his future in other ways.

Certainly there are some kids who are very academically talented and belong at out most competitive universities. However, this is a very small group of students. For many, many more bright kids, the stress of keeping up the grades, and the pace, needed for acceptance to the “Gotta-Get-In” schools exacts a heavy price. Kids pressured to do so take multiple AP courses that end up requiring the to study four to six hours a night after a full day of school and often hours of athletic practice. They miss out on sleep, often relying on amphetamines they call “study aids.” It’s a lifestyle that can wreak havoc on kids’ physical and emotional health.

What’s more, a singular focus on academics keeps kids from developing other life skills that are critical for success in a global economy: the ability to self-motivate, collaborate, problem-solve, and persevere when the going gets tough. These are the very skills business leaders say so many young employees lack; instead, they display a sense of entitlement and a distressing lack of work ethic and “grit.”

What You THINK You’re Doing: “By holding the bar high, I am teaching my kids to always strive for self improvement. Why should she settle for a B when I know she is capable of an A?”

What You’re ACTUALLY Doing: You’re creating an unreasonable drive for perfection in everything. Next to genetics, perfectionism is the strongest known predictor of clinical depression.

If you’re the type of parent who wrings your hands over a less-than-expected report card or failure to get into the “right” school, you’re teaching kids that anything less than perfection isn’t worth doing—and when a young person believes that, what will happen when they (inevitably) fail at something?

Life is full of mistakes, imperfect days, and human failings. By keeping kids from learning a healthy sense of perspective, we’re setting them up for certain unhappiness in the future.

And none of us are at the “top of our game” at all times. Kids have so many tasks over the course of growing up—learning to feel comfortable with themselves, with their bodies, with others, learning how to cope with disappointment, figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, passions and interests, developing empathy and moving from the self-centeredness of childhood to being a responsible member of a community—that there are bound to be times when they are too distressed, to uncertain and too preoccupied to give their all to academics. This is normal and healthy. Too much focus on grades and performance take away from the time needed to cultivate this whole other part of growing up to be a healthy adult.


Bottom line: Back off a little. Stop catastrophizing—grades and SAT scores are not matters of life and death. Start parenting on the 20-year plan. That looks at success not at the end of the grading period, but down the road when your child walks into his or her adult life. Both of you will be much happier.