Great Expectations

“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.” (Marian Wright Edelman)

I recall bringing home a report card in my junior year of high school. It bore all A’s and one B+ in chemistry, a class I struggled mightily with. I was proud of the A’s and even the B+, knowing how hard I had worked for that grade. My mom took one look at the card and said only this: “If only you’d done better in chemistry—you’d have straight A’s.”

At first, I was devastated. My almost-straight-A report card had disappointed my mother. Then I was mad. How dare she not appreciate how hard I had worked to get these grades? For her, they were just something to brag to her friends about. All-A’s was brag-worthy; a B was not. That may have been the day I decided to stop trying to please my mother.

For years, I thought mine was the only mother who would find an almost perfect report card inadequate. But over the years, I’ve spoken with countless people who relayed almost identical stories. Author and physician Rachel Remen describes a similar experience when, as a child, she brought home a test paper with a score of 98%, and all her father said was, “What happened to the other two percent?” Dr. Remen credits that experience with turning her into a joyless perfectionist for decades. She was always in pursuit of that last two percent.

I write this not to indulge in belated therapy or parental castigation, but as a reminder of the pressures we put upon one another, often unwittingly. With a new school year underway, this seems like a good time to share the results of a recent study that correlates parental expectations with teenagers’ wellbeing.

Researchers found that when parents value grades and academic achievement over kindness, their teens do not get better grades, but, rather, they have higher levels of stress and anxiety.

The research also found that when parents encouraged kindness as much as or more than academic achievement, their teens had lower levels of stress and depression. Not only was there less anxiety, the kids also had fewer behavior problems, higher self-esteem, and higher grades. How’s that for a dandy plot twist?

Just another piece of evidence showing that kindness has some truly magical properties!

Often, when kids are struggling academically (and even when they’re not), many parents respond critically—perhaps because that was their own experience in high-school. Whether actual criticism or perceived, the result is detrimental to both academic performance and psychological adjustment in adolescents. Rather than criticism, the research suggests that parents should offer support and ask how they can help.

Parents want the best for their children, but we’ve seen how such desires can backfire. The recent “Varsity Blues” scandals illustrate how wealth and a sense of entitlement can motivate seemingly good people to act very badly. I worry about the messages such shenanigans send their kids, perhaps the most damaging being: You’re not enough just as you are, so I will cheat to make you appear to be something you’re not.

A close second is the message that you’re entitled to special treatment because of your family’s wealth and privilege.

Both of these have a lasting and devastating impact.

The study concludes with the observation that parents invariably say they want the very best for their children. They define best as “some combination of success and happiness.” The disconnect comes when parents encourage their children to pursue the parents’ interests, not the child’s (“not every child wants to or should be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer”). Or when they disproportionately emphasize extrinsic values, such as grades and academic achievement, over intrinsic values, such as kindness and healthy social interactions. Without realizing it, they are sabotaging their child’s sense of wellbeing and their academic performance.

While this study looks specifically at teenagers’ responses to parental expectations, I wonder if there are parallels in marital relationships, teacher-student, employer-employee, and other relationships. Criticism and disappointment are demotivators. Told we are not enough just as we are, we try to become something we are not.

Some people never stop pursuing that last two percent that will prove to the critical parent, lover, or supervisor that the individual is worthy. The trouble is, perfection is an illusion, and worthy is something we must recognize from within.

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” (Anna Quindlen)

13 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. This is such an important post Donna. And I couldn’t be reading it on a better day. Today is world gratitude day — and boy, am I ever grateful for the parents I had. To the day they died, even when I was an adult, they encouraged me, gave me confidence and supported my choices. I am thankful everyday, but reading your post today just reinforced just how blessed I am. Thank you. And btw, I totally think this spills over into other relationships we have.

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    • It sounds like you had amazing parents, Fransi! Thank you for informing me about World Gratitude Day. I try to make gratitude a daily practice, but always welcome a reminder such as this. So much to be grateful for!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Life is challenging for everyone in this world we live in now and it’s easy to forget that, despite it all, we still do have much to be grateful for.

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  2. Good and revealing Post Donna. I have always believed in 20/20 Hide-sight. And with that, there are always those moments that keep coming up with the same self-reaction. May we, someday, be able to experience the moments that were not so devastating. In reading this post, in the back of my mind, I kept wondering when all of those who consider themselves important and influential will recognize the amount of pain they bring to the forefront to reach great expectation and to only reveal the lack of understanding on their part. How would you choose Ignorance or bliss? Have a great week.

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  3. I have had this experience as well and so try not to ride my kids too much with this need for perfection although I do get annoyed when I know they’ve fallen far short of the mark they are capable of. It’s a razor’s edge between motivation and apathy. Thanks for this great post, Donna.

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    • I am in awe of parents who seem to know when it is appropriate to step in on behalf of their children, or even to give them a needed push, and when it is best to stay still and silent. Fortunately, we humans seem to be fairly resilient, so even if kids are raised with parents lacking these good instincts, they can still make good choices themselves. Thanks for your comment, Pam!

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    • That’s a beautiful thing to imagine, Cindy! As we see so much unkindness, we also see kindness gaining traction—especially among young people. I remain hopeful. Thanks for your comment.


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