Often I meet with parents who are very worried about their children’s achievement, usually in school, but sometimes in sports as well. These are well-meaning parents who want the best for their children. They want them to have the best opportunities, and they want their children to have accomplishments that they can feel proud about.

Unfortunately, parents’ anxiety about achievement can backfire on them. This is when they might show up in my office. The pressure to achieve for the sake of achieving can take the joy out of learning. It can obscure the individuality of the child and hide his or her passion.

I am not talking about parents who expect their children to put their best effort into homework and to study for tests and quizzes. I am also not talking about parents who practice ball handling skills with their kids and cheer them on at the soccer game. That is your responsibility as a parent, and it teaches your child responsibility as well.

Many of the children I see live in fairly affluent communities outside of Boston. There is quite a bit of peer pressure among parents to do the best they can for their children. The belief is that if children are very successful that they will be truly happy. It is difficult to resist the pressure that parents feel at the soccer field or at the PTO. One hears, “We signed Derek up for individual coaching so that his hockey game will improve. He has to get up at six am on Thursday to meet before school, but he knows it’s important.” Or one might hear, “We don’t feel that the math curriculum is adequate, so Jenny is going to extra math classes twice a week.” These are children who are doing fine in school or in sports, but their parents feel the need to “enrich” their lives with extra classes or coaching.

A few parents I know ask, “Where is the fun in this?” If your child truly loves baseball and has talent, by all means take her to the batting cage on the weekend. While you are there, make sure that you have fun. If your child does not have the aptitude for sports that require good hand-eye coordination, encourage her to try out swimming or track. Sports are very good for exercise, learning to work with a team, and having the experience of pride in accomplishment. It is important to keep them in perspective as one part of life, though.

Some parents who are very worried about academic achievement find that their children begin to resist the pressure to do better and better. An anxious parent can forget to praise the B’s and A’s and focus only on the C’s. This decreases motivation and leads to resentment. It is important to accept your child for who he is. If he consistently achieves below the level of his ability, you should talk to people at school. Perhaps a learning disability is becoming a factor, and the school should do some testing. Perhaps he was able to do the work in the early grades, but interference from Attention Deficit Disorder is getting in his way in the middle grades. When parents explore these considerations, children feel understood.

In my experience children do well when their parents can accept them for who they are and encourage them to do their best. Children benefit from balance in their lives. They need to go to school and do their work, play sports if they like them, hang out with friends in unstructured setting (like your family room), hang out with you, and have time for solitary pursuits like reading or crafts. They need room to find activities they love, like music or drama. But they need space in their lives to just hang out. Having faith in your child’s ability to be responsible and do well communicates good will toward her and increases her self-esteem.

I would be very interested to hear others’ opinions on this topic. Do you feel pressure from other parents to involve your children in many activities? Do you get very anxious when your child has difficulty in a subject? Do you think I’m off base? Let me know.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.