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The High Price of Pushing Kids Too Hard

Children need to know that love is rooted in who they are, not what they do.

Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock
Source: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Millions of kitchen tables and cell phones witness conversations between parents and friends about when to push foot-dragging children along the road to school readiness, summer camp, or whatever imagined goal line the parent frets some other child might cross first.

Waiting for a developmental skill to emerge in its own time seems just too passive in the 21st century. It leaves many parents today to conclude that pushing will work better than supporting. They wonder only how hard to push, not whether to push at all.

What is the better solution? Don’t push—period.

Not pushing is important especially if you want your children to trust you and feel secure that your love for them is rooted in knowing who they are and not who they might someday become. Secure dwellings and people are built from well-made materials set on strong foundations, not from physical (or emotional) forces pushing and pulling them onward and upward. When such forces withdraw (as they all eventually do), the structures fail, because they are not internally or structurally sound. Sensitivity, support, and encouragement will lead to a child who delights in learning, now and for life.

What happens, psychologically, to children with overly competitive parents—driven sports parents, top-student-only approaches to learning, etc.? It depends on the child’s temperament, his or her closeness to such a parent, and the amount of support the child receives from other nurturing figures in his or her life.

The toughest combination is a parent whose love, support, and understanding of their child is contingent on the child’s performance. Even if you don’t think of yourself as this type of parent, you are still on the hook to change this perception if your child perceives as you as one, fairly or not.

Such hard-driving (even if usually well-meaning) parents do not faze some children. They know that competition is the parent’s thing, not theirs—"I just like playing with my friends." Pressure from an overly competitive parent is also easier to handle when one's other parent is less committed to the approach.

So how do you judge what your child needs for support or encouragement?

Preschool teachers can be important allies in monitoring the amount of support and positive expectation to which a particular child responds. They know that hard-driven kids can sometimes excel ahead of their time. But down the road, when events and other people in the child’s life inevitably sideline the pusher, the children often run out of steam when they need it most. So if you are determined to lead your child down the competitive byways, stay within arm’s length so he can yank you back when you get too far ahead of him.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (

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