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Few people would disagree that parents play an important role in their children's achievement. However, some people would argue that parents of high-achieving students play a detrimental role by pressuring their children to achieve at unrealistically high levels or to satisfy the parents' needs. Parents of academically talented children have been accused of pushing their children to achieve at exceptional levels and sooner than usual. While there is empirical evidence that parent factors have a positive association with, or facilitate, children's achievement, there has also been great concern that parents' unrealistic expectations create pressure and foster performance anxiety in their children.
To get at the core of what motivates parents to guide versus pressure their children, we need to focus on parents' values and beliefs concerning achievement. In an effort to do just that, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, Center for Talented Youth (CTY), have examined parents' perceptions about the importance of high achievement, conceptions of academic success, and achievement goals for their children. Following are two articles and a technical report that represent some of this work.
The following three studies are all based on a longitudinal study of about 800 families of academically talented students. These students were at or above the 97th percentile on a grade-level achievement test in school and participated in the CTY talent search when they were in the fifth grade. In the first year of the study, students and parents were asked about school involvement, the importance of achievement, and perceptions of pressure. Results reported by Ablard, Hoffhines, and Mills (Technical Report No.13,1996) show that a large majority (85.5%) of parents reported being either somewhat involved (45.5%) or very involved (40%) in their child's school. The majority (60%) of parents of sixth-grade children also said that they had been involved in the school for five to six years. Many parents (78.6%) were members of the local PTA and some (30.4%) even worked with the school to develop advanced curricula. Parents' widespread involvement in school was mirrored by agreement that it was important for their children to excel in school (92%). When parents believe that high achievement is very important, they are likely to get involved. The majority of parents also believed that it was very important for their child to attend a top-level college/university (73%) and be highly successful in his/her profession (81%). It is likely that these parents will continue to be involved in their child's education.
Are parents' beliefs about achievement and success, as well as school involvement, mirrored in terms of children's feelings of pressure? The answer is no; instead of 92 percent, only 39 percent of students agreed that they feel "a lot of pressure from their parents to always be an exceptional student." Perhaps this relatively lower percentage is because so many of the students (99%) felt confident of their academic abilities, that is, they believed they could meet the high expectations of their parents.
Further research, reported in Parents' Conceptions of Academic Success: Internal and External Standards by Ablard (1997), examined parents' conceptions of academic success. These beliefs affect parents' behavior and messages to their children about achievement, and could filter down to foster feelings of pressure. When asked to write down their definitions of academic success, 56 percent of all parents' definitions included external standards like the following: performance beyond one's peers or attainment of socially recognized achievements such as college admission and employment in a high-status job. Emphasis on external standards may have its advantages, such as encouraging students to demonstrate high performance in school because it can lead to good grades and test scores, future college admission, and eventually employment in a prominent career. However, excessive or exclusive focus on these external indicators can pressure children, sending the message that academic success is important, not for personal reasons, but to please others.
Although many of the parents evaluated academic success by external standards, one-half of this group simultaneously emphasized internal standards. In other words, they also defined academic success as relative to the individual: enjoyment, setting and attaining personal goals, motivation, working toward one's potential, being curious and inquisitive, and trying one's best. By emphasizing both types of standards, parents convey to their children that outstanding performance is important to success, but personal satisfaction and trying one's best are also important, a balance that should help to alleviate feelings of pressure.
Further investigation by Ablard and Parker (1997) in Parents' Achievement Goals and Perfectionism in Their Academically Talented Children, examined specific achievement goals that parents have regarding achievement. Parents were asked to list goals they had for their child's achievement and the responses were classified as pertaining to a learning goal, a performance goal, both, or neither. A response was classified as a learning goal if parents predominantly focused on their child's understanding of material and improvement in performance. Twenty-eight percent of all parent pairs (i.e., both mother and father) had a learning goal. On the other hand, a response was classified as a performance goal if parents predominantly focused on their child's competence and attainment of socially set standards (e.g., high grades and test scores). Eleven percent of all parent pairs had a performance goal. (The remaining sixty-one percent of parent pairs consisted of one parent with a learning goal and the other parent with a performance goal, or at least one parent with neither type of goal.) Children for whom both parents had a performance goal were more likely than children for whom both parents had a learning goal to have a combination of high concern about mistakes, doubts about their actions, parental expectations, and parental criticism. Because of high parental standards and criticism, these children are likely to experience feelings of pressure. Given the low percentage of parent pairs with a performance goal for their children, the findings of this study help to refute the popular belief that the majority of parents of academically talented children push their children to excel.
These studies contribute to our understanding of the role that parents might play in their children's academic achievement. In contrast to popular belief, most parents of academically talented students do not seem to play a detrimental role in their children's achievement by pressuring them to achieve. These parents, in general, do not focus exclusively on high academic performance such as grades and test scores. Even when they do, almost one-half of these parents also focus on understanding of material and personal improvement in performance. Such a balance, especially when accompanied with support and guidance, is unlikely to foster feelings of pressure.
Further research is needed to understand how parents' belief systems affect the specific ways in which they interact with their children, and ultimately how beliefs filter down to impact children's feelings and long-term achievement. Given that underachievement has been recognized as a risk that is especially pertinent to academically talented students, parents' conceptions of success and related achievement goals for their children should continue to be important for understanding the underachievement of our most promising youth.
Complete references and abstracts are available.