Are your high expectations of your children doing more harm than good? According to a recent study, they just might be. In fact, too-high parental expectations can set your kids up for major problems later in life. Keep reading to learn why.
Are your too-high expectations causing more harm than good?
It’s no secret that I don’t believe in punishing kids for bad grades, that I value other things more than just having a straight-A student, and that I think we teach our children way too much too soon. I don’t need a scientific study to validate those parenting choices. I know in my gut that I’m doing the right thing.
Still, I’ve received a lot of criticism for my gentle parenting techniques in general, and especially when it comes to what I expect from my kids as far as school is concerned in particular. It doesn’t make me doubt my instincts or change my parenting style, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t irk me at all.
So, while I don’t need a study to validate my choices when it comes to my children, it doesn’t hurt to know that even science says I’m doing the right thing. In my opinion, this recent study from the American Psychology Association (APA) does just that. Let’s check it out first, then we’ll break it down and discuss it a bit.
Increasingly high parental expectations are linked to mental health issues later in life, study shows
New research published by the APA at the end of March (2022) shows that “rising parenting expectations and criticism are linked to an increase in perfectionism among college students, which can have damaging mental health consequences.”
Researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 college students in the US, Canada, and Great Britain. In other words, this wasn’t just a tiny little research project involving a handful of kids.
Perfectionism itself isn’t currently classified as a psychiatric condition. However, according to lead researcher Thomas Curran, Ph.D., it “contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.”
The study’s co-author, Andrew P. Hill, also explains that “the pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could be the basis for an impending public health issue.”
Perfectionism trickles down and builds up through generations
Even more worrisome, perfectionism doesn’t just stick with our kids for the rest of their lives. It affects our grandchildren, great-grandkids, and so on down the line, with each generation raising their already high expectations even higher.
Honestly, that’s probably how we ended up here in the first place. Our parents expected more of us than their parents expected of them. In turn, we raised the bar on our own kids. When they become parents, they’ll raise the bar again.
I don’t think we’re trying to make our kids neurotic. I don’t even think we realize half the time that our expectations are unreasonable and unrealistic. I think we all just want what every parent throughout history has wanted- for our kids to have “it” better than we did, whatever “it” may be.
Of all the causes of perfectionism, parental expectations caused the most damage
Perfectionism comes in several different forms, including self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Basically, they’re all pretty much what they sound like. Self-oriented perfectionism comes from the pressure that you put on yourself. Other-oriented comes from external forces, like parents. Socially prescribed perfectionism comes from a feeling that society expects you to be perfect. All three can overlap and build on each other in harmful ways.
Out of the three, Curran and Hill found that “Parental expectations had a larger impact than parental criticism on self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism, so parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism.”
In other words, even if you never criticize your children for failing to meet your high expectations, the fact that they know you expect these things is enough to drive them towards perfectionism.
“Parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive. Young people internalize those expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem. And when they fail to meet them, as they invariably will, they’ll be critical of themselves for not matching up. To compensate, they strive to be perfect,” Curran explained.
Hill went on to say that these trends could explain why we’re seeing such a huge increase in mental health issues among young people. He explains, “It’s normal for parents to be anxious about their children, but increasingly this anxiety is being interpreted as pressure to be perfect.”
Where are all these high expectations coming from?
I can’t imagine that any parent actually wants to cause emotional harm to their child by setting unrealistic expectations. Yes, I know that there are some truly wretched people out there who do want to do just that, but I truly believe that 99.99999% of parents genuinely want what’s best for their children.
So, where are these high expectations coming from? According to Curran, it stems from our anxious reactions to our “hyper-competitive world with ferocious academic pressures, runaway inequality and technological innovations like social media that propagate unrealistic ideals of how we should appear and perform.”
While I’m not a fan of using society as a scapegoat (after all, we ARE society), it does make sense. The world is harsher than ever, and we want to prepare our kids to succeed in it. We want to give them every tool possible to survive. Instead of raging against a ridiculously out-of-control society and collectively reshaping it, we reshape ourselves around it, and in turn, reshape our children.
How can we help our kids survive this increasingly demanding world without crushing their spirits?
Now that we know what high expectations can do to our kids, what do we do next? Curran recommends helping kids learn how to deal with society’s pressures in a healthier way by teaching them that imperfection is normal. He recommends focusing on learning and development instead of just test scores.
We need to go beyond that, though. We all need to take a good hard look at our expectations, not just for our kids but for society as a whole. If we just teach our kids how to survive in the world we currently live in, we’re basically telling them that THIS society is acceptable, that it’s the one worth fighting to maintain, that it’s worth all of the pain that it causes.
Can you honestly say that you believe that’s true? Can you honestly say that this exact world is the one that you want for your kids? I’m a positive “glass half full” person, and even I can’t say that.
Rather than trying to reshape our kids around society, maybe we need to start doing the work that it takes to reshape society around the world that we actually want for our kids. Maybe that starts with setting more reasonable expectations of them so that they set more reasonable expectations for their children. Perhaps it also starts with teaching them life lessons that focus on what really matters, like compassion and kindness.
If we do that, maybe in another generation from now a new research study will come out saying that perfectionism is at an all-time low and mental health is at an all-time high. Wouldn’t that be extraordinary?
I’ll finish this off with one last quote from Julianne Donaldson. It’s also one of my greatest wishes for my kids: “I hope you do not let anyone else’s expectations direct the course of your life.”