Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Are you pressuring your child too much?

In an opinion piece last year, The Obscenity of Spelling Bees, Zak Slayback targeted parents who presumably push their children to excel for the sake of achievement alone. The author suggested that while some spelling bee participants might (possibly) enjoy memorizing obscure words for hours at a time, these children were more likely driven by their goal of winning (and appeasing their parents) than any enrichment dictionary-level fluency might provide.

A more recent article highlighted conflicts between parents in an elite New Jersey school district debating the extent to which children should be "pushed" academically. While framed as a battle split along a cultural divide, the controversy centered on whether students' emotional welfare should take precedence over the need for more rigorous academic standards. First-generation parents in particular raised concerns regarding the need to prepare their children for success in a competitive society where favors or connections never existed for them.


As the parent of a gifted child, how do you know if you're being too pushy... or, on the other hand, if you're not doing enough? When is it necessary, or even essential, to offer incentives, apply pressure, or threaten consequences to enlist your child's motivation? How do you know if and when this does more harm than good? You don't want to be a "tiger parent," but sometimes you wonder if she was on to something after all.

Children learn from experience and build resilience when they feel challenged and have the freedom to fail and recover. And most research has supported authoritative parenting (where both limits and support are provided) rather than harsh authoritarian or overly permissive parenting styles as best for children's emotional security and confidence. Clearly, children thrive when parents strike a balance between these extremes by offering support, structure and guidance.

And offering encouragement, limit-setting and guidance is an essential part of parenting, particularly when your child is struggling. Almost all children fall behind at something, whether it's math, meeting deadlines, or just doing chores at home. When you create an expectation that your child should accomplish something she is clearly capable of achieving, you let her know you respect her abilities and potential. However, when the bar is set too high, or when failure is not an option, a child may feel pressured to perform beyond her abilities.

Nevertheless, many parents struggle with uncertainty regarding how much to "push their child. They juggle cultural, family and community influences, and their hopes and dreams for their child, with realistic concerns that too much pressure could backfire. Reports of suicide clusters at Bay Area high schools, for example, suggest a link between a culture of high expectations and overwhelming stress. Accounts of coercion and verbal abuse from parents of high profile celebrities, such as pianist, Lang Lang, may seem extreme. Yet, parents may question if they are doing enough. After all, Lang Lang is successful...

As you grapple with your role as a parent, you may want to consider the following questions:

1. How important is the immediate task?

If you push your child, he might accomplish the task at hand more efficiently and successfully. And if that particular task is important, then it may be necessary. For example, submitting a college scholarship application by the deadline may be more critical than completing a fifth grade book report. Your child's age, temperament, and emotional adjustment need to be considered along with the significance of the immediate goals. There are times when he may need your strong encouragement, and others when it may be best to step back and allow him to take the lead...even if he fails.

2. Does my involvement help or hinder progress?

Sometimes kids get stuck. They feel lost, insecure and anxious. They procrastinate, exaggerate the significance of their failings, or underestimate how much effort is necessary to succeed. Parents are there to guide them. You may need to intervene and provide some support, limit-setting, or goal-setting. You know your child best and can determine what type of involvement might work - gentle encouragement, humor, firm limits, etc. You also may sense when your involvement will backfire. A brief initial outburst where you child complains about your intervention can be expected. What is more of a concern is if your child starts to rely on you completely, rebels and refuses to comply, shows signs of anxiety or depression, or gives up entirely.

3. What are the long-term effects of my involvement?

As you sort through how much to intervene, keep in mind long-term goals. You might think that applying pressure and setting exceptionally high expectations "builds character" and instills habits that lead to further success. While some children may rise to this challenge, others may develop insecurity, risk-avoidance, perfectionism, too much reliance on you for guidance, or eventual rebellion. Winning that award in sixth grade or getting perfect grades may backfire later on when your child faces greater challenges and must accept her imperfections. Many gifted children who are underachievers feel pressured to succeed and give up completely when confronted with the reality of their perceived inadequacies.

Children sense when they are encouraged to reach their potential, or when the goal is beyond their grasp. Gifted children, with their perceptiveness and heightened sense of fairness and justice, become disillusioned if they sense they are serving the school's or their parents' personal goals, or fulfilling community expectations. If you hope to build independence, resilience and confidence in your child, remaining attuned to your child's needs and determining how much to "push" is essential.

What are your thoughts? How do you know if you are pressuring your child?


  1. Gail, What great insights and strategies! And this is such an important issue. Living in the Palo Alto area and seeing the security guards stationed at the train crossings to try to keep our precious children safe is truly heart-breaking. However, as a mom of a highly gifted student who sent thru the Palo Alto school system (I should say 'older' mom--my daughter's now 33!), I was faced with a different challenge--how to try to balance her on-going, intense drive with a little downtime. I've found in our high-pressure community that the knee-jerk reaction to many of the student suicides has been to blame the parents. While this may be understandable, I think this is a very complex problem involving forces within the child herself as well as from our educational system, our culture and peers.....and, of course, parents. It's great that you're continuing this discussion but I think it would behoove some parents to include tips on how to handle reducing stress/pressure when its coming from the child herself or from outside the home. Sadly, I've had to learn to bite my tongue even now when my adult daughter continues to take on what I consider 'too much'. I think part of it was learning that what makes me 'happy' (time to unwind) is not what makes my daughter happy (being intellectually challenged to the max!)

    1. Unknown, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that it is certainly wrong to blame any parents for their child's suicide; they have a horrible tragedy to endure, and blaming them is not only wrong, but cruel. And clearly, most students who do feel pressured by family or school do not become suicidal!

      But you also raise another important point - that highly driven students are not necessarily that way because of their parents. I have seen that many times - parents distressed because their perfectionistic, high achieving child is placing too much of a burden on himself/herself, and where they have not pressured their child at all. Hopefully, we can help our children find some balance and perspective. But that's another topic...

      Thanks again for your feedback.