We live in a competitive society that is focused on individual achievement. Parents are increasingly focused on their children’s achievements as an extension of their own achievements and they are anxious that their children are not left behind in the climb to the top of the school hierarchy.
Parents subtly or not so subtly boast about their children’s achievements at the school gates, at work and at dinner parties. ‘Jack is on grade 5 in swimming now’ or ‘Chloe has reached level 4 in English and Maths, which means she is heading for A*s at GCSE.’ How important are these achievements though? As a secondary school teacher, you often hear parents say ‘I don’t know what went wrong. He was so good in primary school,’ but perhaps what is going wrong is that children have been pushed too hard at the expense of emotional and social skills. When children become teenagers they are exposed to many different pressures and parents are not always around at the crucial moment to give guidance. If a child has good social skills, self-esteem and emotional intelligence they will be able to handle these situations well and will continue to do well at school. However, if a child is less equipped to deal with peer pressure, then problems can occur in secondary school.
The problem of competitive parenting starts at preschool age. I know that many parents during the preschool years are concerned about their children’s progress at preschool and worry about how well their child is learning their letters and numbers. This is probably not helped by the government’s method of reporting in the early years, which now emphasises reading, writing and arithmetic. Some people refer to this as the ‘schoolification of young children’ and point out that young children need to learn through play. In the UK, children start school much earlier than in some countries. However, research shows that children in other countries such as Sweden who don’t start formal education until 7 years old are easily able to catch up with us in terms of literacy and numeracy.
Hothousing is a term that has been used to describe an environment where parents put undue pressure on their children to achieve. Such parents choose preschools or nurseries that push literacy and numeracy at a young age rather than play. These parents may view play as unimportant and may enrol their children in many structured activities where they feel their child is learning something useful. Children may be taken to gymnastics, karate or piano lessons even when they are reluctant to go (Hyson, 1991). However, studies suggest that children whose parents are very focused on early achievement are less creative and more anxious. There also appears to be no long-term academic benefits (Hirsch-Pasek et al. 1990). Parents who are keen on hothousing their children also tend to be more critical of their children and controlling. For example, one study found that in an etch-the-sketch task, mothers who were rated high for hothousing were more controlling of the activity. They would make critical comments such as ‘the yellow does not look like grass’(Hyson et al, 1991).
Parents need to be careful that they don’t force their children into achievement orientated environments at a young age. One study found that children who went to highly academic preschools and nurseries, were more worried about school, felt less pride in their accomplishments and were less motivated than children who were taught in child-centred environments. This was found to be the case irrespective of class or ethnic group (Stipek et al. 1995).
Hothousing continues through primary school, when parents enrol their children in a stream of extra-curricular activities and push their children to do well at school. Some parents will spend hours doing their children’s homework projects for them so that their child gets the best grades. Weekends are spent at ballet classes and football or rugby practice to ensure their child is the best in every way.
I want my own son to do well academically and in other activities like sport and music, just like every parent but I know it is important to step back and not push him too hard. However, it is difficult not to get sucked into our competitive culture. When other parents are paying for lots of sporting or music activities for their child, you begin to think that maybe your child should attend these activities too so that they can be as good as the other children. When other parents say that their child is performing better than your child in English or Mathematics, you begin to think you should force your child to spend more time on homework. On the other hand, I know that no child can be good at everything and it can make children anxious if parents strive for perfection. In fact, the most important thing is for parents to develop their children’s emotional intelligence and encourage naturally developing interests. Parents can start by emphasising that perfection is not important and that although it is good to try our best that we don’t have to be the best. Teaching children to empathise with other people’s emotions and to not always be competitive develops emotional intelligence and is much more likely to lead to success in life than pure grades.
Why we should focus on children’s emotional intelligence not IQ. http://wp.me/p29Oas-gw
- ‘It doesn’t matter what you read to your children as long they are interested in the story’ (schoolsimprovement.net)