Dear Mr. Morton,
I am a professional woman and admittedly put too much pressure to achieve on my son, age 10. I love him and he knows it, but I’m a perfectionist and my stomach goes in knots if he doesn’t make mostly A’s and B’s on his report card.
This school year his grades dropped to the B-C range, and in math he has a D average. I had him evaluated by the school psychologist and learned that his abilities and current academic skill levels are in the average range.
How can I keep him achieving without putting too much stress on him?
When parental expectations are too high or too perfection-istic, children easily grow anxious and hypersensitive to criticism. I have witnessed some students attempt to get even with overly demanding parents by committing “academic suicide” — purposefully underachieving. Others develop poor self-esteems and relinquish their natural zest for trying in school, and life.
If your son feels he cannot meet your academic expectations, he may eventually throw in the towel or exert only minimal effort in school. And, why not? If effort doesn’t earn your parental appreciation, he’ll rationally conclude the less effort, the less to lose, emotionally.
Let me offer some ideas that may help. First, try realigning your beliefs about perfectionism as it relates to your son, and add a bit of humor. We learn from our mistakes, so those who don’t make mistakes won’t learn much. Growth comes from flaws so why would you expect perfection from your son? In actuality, most of us are ideal, completely trustworthy, flawless, and picture perfect during job interviews or while filling out job applications or income tax forms. Otherwise, forget it!
Next, here’s a best-kept secret about reaching the preponderance of children who aren’t gifted, flawless or perfect. It’s an approach that enables parents and caregivers to reach out to the normal, ordinary and even the middling and mediocre children in their lives — to boost their intrinsic motivation. It is accomplished by focusing on process, not product. Begin by appreciating and encouraging your son’s day-to-day efforts and improvements in school, no matter how small (process) and focus less on future test, quiz, exam and report card grades (product).
For example, you mentioned he has a D average in math. Suppose a math exam is two weeks away. Each day, when you find him studying and completing math homework, let him know you appreciate his effort. If he scores a 69 percent on the exam after this effort, you can’t very well praise him, but you can show him how much you value his effort and improvement, no matter how small: “Johnny, I really like how you brought your math book home and completed all the homework assignments. You got a 63 percent on the last exam and 69 percent on this one — that’s six percentage points higher — you’re getting better!”
If Johnny had to wait two weeks before getting parental praise for an A or B on the math exam (product), his motivation would suffer, and if he earned a C or below on it after a Herculean effort, his enthusiasm would eventually fade away.
Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth struck out at the plate many more times than they hit home runs. I believe their motivation endured because they focused intensely on process (day-to-day practice) and minimally on product (the home run). By using this best-kept secret, your son will feel your unconditional love and appreciation for his daily efforts and improvements, regardless of the outcomes. Everything else will follow, for he’ll learn the true nature of winning, and that no one is a loser until they give up.
Robert Morton is a retired school psychologist and adjunct professor in the School of Leadership & Policy Studies at Bowling Green State University. Contact him at the Family Journal (www.familyjournal1.blogspot.com).