How much should parents focus on achievement? Should we constantly push our children to do their best? Or should we put more effort into helping them become well-rounded individuals who care for the needs of others, even if they might not be quite the students they could have been otherwise? A 2017 study of parents' values suggests that framing our choices this way may create a false dilemma. Children whose parents emphasized values, such as respect and kindness, as much or more than they emphasized achievement were not only better adjusted; they also did better in school.
The study was conducted on sixth grade students in an upper-middle class community. The participants were given a list of six values and asked to rank the three they thought were most important to their parents. Half of the values were achievement-oriented and the other half were pro-social in nature (showing respect, being kind, helping the needy). The children also rated how critical their parents were and completed questionnaires measuring their adjustment. Additional information was gathered from teachers and school records.
The best adjustment was found for students who either reported that both parents emphasized pro-social values more than achievement or reported that their parents emphasized both types of values equally. Compared to students whose parents put higher emphasis on achievement, these students had less emotional distress, fewer problem behaviors, and higher self-esteem. AND they did better in school. They had higher GPAs and were rated by their teachers as having fewer learning problems and as showing less disruptive behavior in the classroom. It may seem paradoxical, but parents who put the highest emphasis on achievement have children who don't do as well in school as parents who emphasize respect and kindness as much or more as they do achievement.
So there are disadvantages when parents emphasize achievement more than respect or kindness. Those of you with a spouse who puts a great deal of emphasis on achievement may try to compensate by putting more emphasis on kindness or respect than on achievement. The study results suggest that trying to counterbalance one's spouse may not work so well, though. When one parent highly emphasized achievement and the other was more balanced as to values, their offspring didn't fare better in terms of emotional distress, problem behaviors, or self-esteem than those for whom both parents favored achievement (they did do a little better when it came to teacher ratings of academic problems). The worst outcome was for children whose mothers strongly emphasized achievement but whose fathers balanced achievement and pro-social values. These children had more emotional distress and behavior problems than children whose parents both emphasized achievement.
That last, particularly troubled group--with moms who emphasized achievement and fathers who balanced achievement and kindness--also were particularly high in the amount of criticism they reported getting from their parents. In the study as a whole, parents who emphasized achievement were more likely to also be quite critical of their children. Many of the negative effects produced by moms with a strong achievement emphasis were lessened or even reversed if those moms were not critical. So the amount of criticism a child receives may be even more important than how much that child is encouraged to achieve.
It's also important to remember that the study was done in an upper-middle-class community. Such communities are often rife with achievement pressures--not only from parents, but also from teachers and friends. A strong parental emphasis on achievement may not have as many negative effects in communities where no one else is urging children to do well.
Proverbs instructs parents to be deliberate about how they direct their children: "Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it" (Prov. 22:6, NIV). What is the way they should go, though? In terms of the alternatives used in this research study, is it best to train children first of all to be hardworking, studious, and academically successful, or should qualities such as respect, kindness, and helpfulness be emphasized the most?
Scripture does in some passages stress the importance of diligence and hard work (e.g. Prov. 10:4-5, Prov. 12:24). There's also an emphasis on learning God's commands, and learning these certainly takes effort. Scripture puts at least as much emphasis on showing qualities such as love, kindness, and service, though. Shouldn't you make sure your children know how important these are to you? Shouldn't they see you "do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12) and "do good to all people" (Gal. 6:10) at least as much as they see you strive for success? If you put a priority on teaching your children to be considerate and caring, not only are they likely to become kind and thoughtful adults, but, as the study described above suggests, they are also likely to be well-adjusted and to succeed at school and work. Respect, kindness, and helpfulness aren't just a sound basis for morality; they are a basis for all of life.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster