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My wife just started reading "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", a book written by a Chinese mother who talks about the pros and cons of the high-pressure and rigid parenting style of some Chinese parents.

In discussing the book with my wife, I started thinking about high-pressure vs. low-pressure parenting. One of the arguments for pressure are that children will often say they are not interested in something, or will be lazy about things such as practice and homework. I've experienced this first hand with all of my children. They are frequently reluctant to start learning something new, but after you force them to do it for a while, they get over the initial hurdles, then it gets easier.

But how much pressure is too much, and how little pressure is too little? What differentiates consistency from pressure?

Also, how do we decide what educational areas should have more pressure than others? Obviously if a child says that they don't feel like learning how to read or how to do math, because they don't want to do homework, you have to follow through and make them do it. Anything else would be irresponsible, because those are mandatory curriculum for any legitimate school. But what if the child makes the same excuse with learning piano. Is it equally as irresponsible to let them quit playing piano because they don't want to practice? Arguably, if your child grows up to be a professional musician, the music lessons are much more important to his/her education than math was.

I realize much of this could be objective, so I'd prefer answers that have some sort of statistics or studies backing them.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There is an analog here, I think in focusing on anxiety to achieve specific external goals -- a high test score, a high GPA, a high SAT score, admittance to a prestigious university, etc.

Pressure might (or might not..) make children anxious in working towards these goals. How would that anxiety affect them?

http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1986-13012-001

155 3rd and 4th graders were divided into low test-anxious (LTA), middle test-anxious (MTA), or high test-anxious (HTA) groups on the basis of scores on the Test Anxiety Scale for Children. Students were then tested in small groups on age-appropriate arithmetic problems either under time pressure typical of current achievement testing or under no time pressure. HTA boys displayed poor performance under time pressure compared to their less anxious peers yet improved significantly when time pressure was removed, with HTA and MTA boys matching the performance of LTA boys. LTA boys and HTA girls performed better under time pressure.

So as expected, anxiety generally has a negative effect on performance. But there's a huge divide in sex, at least in this study! High test anxiety girls performed better under time pressure, whereas HTA boys did not. And what determines whether a child has low, medium or high anxiety toward a test? Certainly parental pressure would tend to make them more anxious overall, but what if the child has a naturally relaxed personality?

So already you can see the old adage being borne out, every child is different.

As for the parents, perhaps the balance between internal (intrinsic) and external motivation is something to consider. There are tons of studies that document how dangerous it is for adults to focus on extrinsic goals; pursuing such goals often actively harms the much more powerful intrinsic motivations that drive people to succeed in life.

http://cty.jhu.edu/research/biblio.html#conceptions

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 internal and external standards of success, 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.

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2  
HA! Rewarding a kid at every sign of them being naturally inquisitive would seem prudent, then. Thanks for the links :) We've been doing that, while coming under a bit of fire from the 'elders.' –  Tim Post Apr 25 '11 at 8:51
    
Coming in as a 19 year old with a history of unusually intense education (I started college at 14), I would like to point out that if you use anxiety as motivation it is entirely likely that you will end up becoming the least likely person your child would come to for help coping with it, due to a perceived fear of disappointment and internalized assumption that the extrinsic goals are more important to you than the child's happiness. This can lead to breakdowns of trust and overall mental well being. Fear of failure should never be mistaken for desire for success. –  Jack Sep 23 at 19:02

"Your daughter isn't sick; she's a dancer." http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

Yes, kids needs a good general education, but nurturing who they really are and the creative paths they gravitate to on their own may be the greatest gift a parent can give.

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we generally like a bit more context than this in answers. Is there a summary or a paragraph or two that best explains? –  Jeff Atwood Apr 25 '11 at 9:13
    
@Jeff normally I'd agree with you, but this video (like most TED talks) is a classic. @Nathan, perhaps edit you answer, adding Ken Robinson's bio. This is one of those things you either get or you don't –  Christian Payne Apr 25 '11 at 9:31
    
-1 - but I'll change it to +1 if you give some context for the quote and the video in your answer. Many people can't watch videos while at work or in an environment where they can't turn on speakers or don't have headphones. Knowing the intent around your answer and the key excerpts from the video that relate to the question would really help. –  Javid Jamae Apr 25 '11 at 13:22
    
+1 for linking to ted.com. Love that site! Still, Jeff and Javid raise good points. A summary would be very helpful. –  Beofett Apr 25 '11 at 13:31
    
Beofett, I had already added a summary by the time you commented. My words after the link is the essence of the video. –  Nathan Bowers Apr 25 '11 at 21:45

Others have posted some good info on anxiety vs. school performance, so I won't repeat that here. I would like to offer some thoughts on reframing the question you just asked...

"...[H]ow much pressure is too much, and how little pressure is too little?" is a hard question to answer, because it's abstracting a bunch of separate issues that are better addressed, well, seperately:

  • Requiring that your children set ambitious goals and learn to pursue them, vs. having a more hands-off approach that is fine with your child doing the minimum required at school, and just "hanging out" etc. outside of school.

  • Making your child feel that his/her family's love and acceptance is dependent on his/her performance at some task or tasks, vs. not caring at all about achievement vs. a middle ground.

  • Trying to force your child onto the path that you have chosen for him/her vs. wanting him/her to be great at whatever he/she chooses to do.

  • Teaching your child to accept nothing less than perfection/1st place at everything vs. teaching him/her that failure is part of life and learning, and that you don't have to be the best at something to find it rewarding.

  • Punishing poor performance vs. a "what happens happens" attitude vs. looking for ways to attack problems together.

I'd say that I was raised in a high expectation but low anxiety environment.

My parents never told me what career path or what kind of relationship/kids, etc. I should want. They wanted me to excel, but made it clear they were equally happy whether I became a farmer, a teacher, a rocket scientist, or whatever. They did everything they could to help me reach my goals, whether it was carting my brother and I off to my speaking engagements, or driving me to the library every day for two weeks because TAOCP was deemed too expensive for a young teen to take home with her while it was on inter-library loan.

When it turned out I was terrible at softball, rather than trying to make me "stick with" something that turned out to be a bad fit, my parents thought it perfectly natural that I chalked it up to experience and switched to volleyball the next season. They treated my oscillating between piano and vocal music the same way. It's hard to know whether something is for you before you've tried it.

When I failed to perform, my mom stuck by me, and helped me seek a solution -- even when everyone else said she was crazy. I became very ill in high school, but none of the doctors we saw could figure out what was wrong with me for 2.5 years. They told my parents that I wasn't really sick, but acting out and lazy. I had teachers trying to get me to drop out of school, and I'm sure the whole thing was embarrassing and disappointing for my parents. I went from the top of my class to barely graduating.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with a condition that can cause tiredness, immune system problems, nomenal aphasia (inability to recall nouns), disorientation, memory loss, blackouts, migraines, and a bunch of other nasty stuff that had crippled my ability to do much of anything. It was treatable, and life went on -- but it was too late to repair most relationships with those who'd believed that my failures were voluntary.

I've seen a lot of young people pushed into career paths that they aren't passionate about or talented in because of their parents' expectations. I've seen people struggle to be who they aren't out of fear that not doing so will cost their parents' love. At best, it ends in mediocrity and unhappiness, at worst, self destruction, usually in the form of drugs and/or suicide.

The opposite extreme isn't good, either. Kids who grow up with parents who don't care about seeing them achieve tend to underestimate their own abilities, and be extrinsically rather than intrinsically motivated in general.

So, rather than thinking "pressure" is good or bad, I think:

Ambition, goal-setting, unconditional love, self-direction, work ethic, support in overcoming obstacles, and understanding that not everything we try is for life are awesome.

Rigidity, artificially limiting your child's choices, unqualified attitude of "succeed or be punished", and conditional acceptance are bad.

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Hedge Mage, as usualy sums things up pretty nicely, but she left out a factor I think is also key in creating or lessening pressure in regard to activities in which a child is involved (even activities the child initially chose themselves) and that is how you compliment as well as critique.

The objective is to press your kids to make a good EFFORT in whatever it is they try out. Did he or she do his best? Whether it is reading or a tennis match, celebrations for achievement should happen with a focus on WHY the achievement was attained (usually through practice, and hard work/dilligence). Failure should always be accompanied by, "hey great job learning what doesn't work" if the child really did do his or her best. Failures can be celebrated too - "Up from the ashes grow the roses of success" - Great! so its disappointing it didn't work, but who is to say it won't next time?

There is a related question I once read about whether or not it is acceptable to push your kids into sports. I would say it is cool to push your kids to stay active and choose a sport to try - but let them choose which sport. Then, only pressure as it relates to if the child is doing his/her best. "If you skip practice today, are you really doing your best" - maybe the child is sick and the answer is genuinely yes, maybe not and your kid should get up and go to practice. This applies whether it is learning an instrument, learning to read, or joining the debate team.

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