The Paradox of Pushing Kids to Succeed
Our teens are embedded in a culture driven by competition and perfectionism, where success is defined by status, performance and appearance. These values are transmitted to our children nonverbally through our emotional state and through what we notice, are impressed with, and praise or discourage in them.
When we are on the fast track, we lose ourselves and forget the values closest to our hearts. In moments of perspective, we realize that having the courage to stand up for kids who are less popular is more impressive than scoring in the 90th percentile on the SATs. But that’s not what we reward.
Pushing teens to be the best is well-intentioned. We worry that they will be left behind in a competitive world. But the notion that being the best and having the most brings happiness is an illusion (Crocker & Carnevale, 2013). And future success is not determined by good grades, Ivy League acceptances, or inflated self-esteem (Tough, 2012).
Capacities Associated with Success
In fact, success is correlated with psychological capacities including: optimism, curiosity, a sense of oneself as capable (different from self-esteem, which is about self-worth), and the ability to manage negative emotions and weather obstacles (Tough, 2012). These capacities develop in the context of secure attachments with parents, which occurs when we give teens space by being present, responsive and interested – rather than reactive, controlling or preoccupied. Consistently, research confirms that teens’ subjective experience of their relationship with parents as close and supportive protects and insulates them more than anything.
Why Pressuring Kids to Perform Backfires
Ironically, parents’ hypervigilance about teens’ grades and future success backfires psychologically and academically. When parents are overly invested in performance, kids are less likely to develop their own, more sustainable, motivation.
Further, making the stakes too high engenders fear, leading teens to avert possible failure at all costs. This level of stress propels homework avoidance, compromises executive functions, inhibits curiosity and new challenges, and increases lying.
Some teens are able to be compliant under pressure, but compliance replaces problem solving, judgment and autonomous thinking – capacities needed for self-reliance, fortitude and success. Without the space to find their own way, teens fail to develop an inner-directed sense of self to anchor them (Levine, 2006). Alternatively, encouraging teens to think and advocate for themselves, make their own choices, and experience natural consequences of their decisions fosters the development of identity, values, responsibility, and competence.
Excessive worry about teens’ success can also lead parents to be overinvolved and intrusive in areas where teens should make their own choices. Failing to be vigilant, set effective limits and help in areas where they are vulnerable leads to compromised judgment and impulse control (Levine, 2006).
Psychological Effects of Perfectionism and Performance Pressure
The darker side of our culture of performance and perfectionism, and its manifestations in families, is well documented. It is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, lying, eating disorders, recklessness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-reproach, cutting, and suicide (Levine, 2006).
In competitive and affluent cultures, similar to impoverished ones, according to teen ratings, drug users who have delinquent behavior are the most popular and admired (Levine, 2006). Research supports the link between dangerous risk-taking stress and constraint in teens (Levine, 2006). Teens seek relief through emotional or literal escape in the form of self-destructive behavior, suicidal fantasies and suicide, or secret acting out and rebellion through drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and bullying.
Teens Who Are too Good to Be True
The scariest manifestation of this culture of perfectionism occurs with teens who are in trouble, but fool us by appearing happy and being “successful.” They hide behind a false self – an unconscious adaptation designed to secure love and admiration, compartmentalizing negative feelings and parts of the self that would create conflict or disapproval.
The psychological makeup of such teens is fragile. They are easily disappointed in themselves for any imperfections, believing they shouldn’t need help. Secretly sinking under the weight of constant pressure to be “amazing” to avoid falling into despair and shame, they feel trapped but cannot come forward. Even contemplating disappointing their parents activates a sense of their world crumbling. These teens say, “I would rather die than disappoint my parents. ”
Teens on the performance treadmill who “succeed” without incident in high school, but fail to develop a secure sense of self, may crash with less support in college, or in romantic relationships, when faced with increasing challenges and seen as less amazing. Without a realistic sense, and acceptance, of their strengths and weaknesses, or the skills to deal with inevitable failures and disappointments, they are ill equipped to cope. Further, their addiction to approval creates an emotional roller coaster, compromising equilibrium (Crocker & Carnevale, 2013).
The Problem with Being a Self-Esteem Junkie
When we need external evidence of our worth – in the form of approval, status, or appearance – we become self-esteem addicts. The need for validation to steady us becomes a driving force for emotional survival – creating self-absorption and hijacking intrinsic motivation, a natural desire to learn, and concern for the greater good (Crocker & Carnevale, 2013).
Do’s and Don’ts for Parents
- Encourage teens to make their own choices while helping them think through consequences of different decisions
- Set limits on potentially dangerous activities
- Be curious about what makes your teen happy or sad
- Notice and encourage your teen’s natural interests
- Notice and tolerate ways your teen is different from you
- Be aware of ways your teen may be making up for your loneliness, rescuing you from anxiety, or doing well to make you feel like you’re a good parent
- Protect where teens need protection
- Be aware of trying to stay with your teen’s negative emotion versus rescuing or being reactive
- Be aware of ways you may shame or punish perceived failure
- Make a practice of using money or excessive rewards as a motivator for good grades (External reinforcement blocks internal motivation.)
- Shame or punish kids for their performance
- Make academic or other decisions for your teen
- Be intrusive and micromanage grades on tests (Don’t hang out on PowerSchool.)
- Lecture or be a broken record (Teens feel smothered and tune out.)
- Use fear to motivate (It overwhelms teens’ capacities and creates superficial compliance in place of independence.)
- Act on anxiety (Don’t be reactive.)
- Rescue teens from natural consequences
- Be preoccupied and distracted. (Teens can tell. They need you to be fully present with them, but not intrusive.)
Crocker, J., & Carnevale, J. (2013, September/October). Letting go of self-esteem. Scientific American Mind, 27-33.
Levine, M. (2006). The price of privilege. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Margolies, L. (2007, April). Amazing doesn’t have to mean superhuman and perfectionistic [Letter to the editor]. Newton Tab.
Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Margolies, L. (2018). The Paradox of Pushing Kids to Succeed. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-paradox-of-pushing-kids-to-succeed/