Parents expend a lot of energy worrying about whether their children will succeed. Success is certainly important, but it serves a more important and more deserving god: happiness. Ideally, happiness should be the objective for all of our pursuits, intellectual, professional, personal, even parental. We invest ourselves in the subjects we do because they are the ones that excite us, and that excitement fulfills us emotionally as well as intellectually. The same goes for our professional endeavors: we apply for jobs, start businesses, forge relationships, and build careers based on which among them bring us joy, in whatever form. Obviously our personal relationships should make us happy; the ones that don’t are soon ended. As parents, we find great joy in seeing our children learn, grow, and discover their future selves. No pursuit is worthwhile if pleasure cannot be derived from it, from the ends if not, ideally, from the means as well.
We all want our children to be happy. They are, after all, children. Despite that desire, balancing happiness with achievement is a difficult task for a parent. It takes patience and perspective; we all feel like we have so much skin in the game. We know the consequences of procrastination and the long years of dedicated work necessary to succeed the way we have and know that they can. The gains of applying pressure to our children when they don’t live up to this standard, though, are often not worth the damage doing so can cause.
A recent Harvard School of Public Health Study found that more than half of students at public and charter schools felt pressure from their school to succeed and nearly two-thirds of students were stressed about the volume of homework they receive. We all know the typical symptoms of stress: fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, among others. What is so insidious about school-age stress is that these symptoms only serve to increase stress levels, as these symptoms all manage to get in the way of the success that the sufferer was seeking to begin with. This ugly cycle wears students down, leaving them dreading school and the seemingly inevitable and increasingly more disappointing results.
Similar results were found among affluent private school students in a study by Frontiers in Psychology. According to the Frontiers study, pressure and workload, chronic stressors ever present in the lives of adolescents and teens, “occur with more frequency and are more strongly related to maladaptive behaviors and mental health problems in young people than acute major life events,” such as parental divorce or the death of loved ones. These consequences of stress can carry over well into college and adult years, and are correlated with “academic disengagement and substance abuse.” In other words, kids who feel this sort of steady pressure are more likely to develop anxiety and depressive disorders and substance abuse problems in addition to investing LESS in their school work.
Poor grades, school angst, and increased risk of both mental health and substance abuse problems are obstacles to happiness and success that school programs and parental involvement should be actively avoiding, not promoting. We should be teaching our children to focus not on the pressures and stressors but on the joys of learning and the benefits that can be derived from discovering that passion. Figuring out how is the big challenge we all face.
Studies conducted over the last 20 years years have repeatedly demonstrated that when kids self-report happiness they are more successful at school, but it is often incorrectly assumed that it is the grades that cause the happiness. In a University of Pennsylvania study entitled “Happiness and Academic Achievement: Evidence for Reciprocal Causality,” a two-year study of 5th and 6th graders demonstrated, as the title suggests, not only that success in school promotes happiness but also that pre-existing happiness causes academic success. In this study, students in the Fall were measured for cognitive and affective happiness and given an IQ test. In the Spring, the students’ grades were collected. The tests were repeated the next year and grades were collected again. The results demonstrated that, when controlling for other factors, “well-being predicted academic performance” and that “children who earned better grades were more likely to experience improved well-being.” This suggests that, although increased happiness can be a result of success, an inherent and general sense of well-being can be the cause of success and a more straightforward launching pad when trying to help a kid who is struggling balancing anxiety and a difficult curriculum.
How do we help to foster that sense of well-being in our kids while still instilling the need for hard work, dedication, and achievement? A University of Chicago study performed by Kevin Rathunde and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi entitled “Optimal Experience and the Family Context” discovered a relationship between teenagers and parents that correlated with child happiness, satisfaction, and strength when faced with typical teenage obstacles. This relationship is based in five objectives that reinforce the philosophy that a joy of learning will lead to investment, growth, and success at school.
Clarity - Students thrive when they have clearly defined expectations. If you have not been clear with yourself about how you want your children to feel about school, you may be sending mixed messages to your child. What is YOUR expectation? Have you discussed that expectation with your husband/wife/partner to be sure you share that expectation? Consistent and clear communication with your children removes the obstacles of doubt that may block their path.
Centering - Your child needs to believe that their well-being is a higher priority to you than the goals you have set for them. Be certain any discussions you have about school work do not focus on future consequences. Emphasize what is happening now, whether it be emotional or concrete. With you by their side, your child is better equipped to brave the challenges they face.
Choice - Children’s sense of autonomy is critical to intrinsic motivation. If every aspect of their lives is structured and hand-delivered, there is no impetus for kids to buy in. There are many opportunities for them to feel ownership over choices, whether those choices are about long-term academic pursuits or smaller choices at home and how to approach their work. The more they realize that they are in control, the more likely they will apply themselves without your insistence.
Commitment - Despite their age, kids are amazingly adept at understanding the truth (or lack thereof) of your intentions. They need to know that you are with them no matter where they are or where they get. Threats will push your children away. With the confidence of your unconditional support, your children can fully engage in their school work without the fear of disappointing you.
Challenge - While providing a secure safety net, a parent must also encourage opportunities for their children to grow at a pace that is suited to them. The only standard your children should be measured against is their own growth. Challenges should neither be so large that they produce anxiety nor so small that children are bored. Start any new endeavor with digestible chunks, and help them to enjoy the sense of accomplishment. Let them find successes, then let them be challenged. Students feel best and thus work best when they both face and overcome challenges set before them.
These are big asks and not easy ones to implement. They take enormous buy-in from all parties and results will often be realized in fits and starts. However, even in parts, these objectives will have a positive impact on the way you and your children talk about work and school. Despite our best intentions, doubling down on the pressures already inherent in the academic process likely does more harm than good. Help your child to love learning, to love school. From that love, academic success and, more importantly, psychological well-being will be borne.
In the coming weeks, we will dive more deeply into the 5 Cs and provide some reachable and specific ways that you can access these concepts with your family. Keep reading, and let us know in what ways you and your children find new successes!