Your Turn: When Parents Push Too Hard ... Or Not Enough

Posted by Laura Dimock on

As a parent, did you ever push your child in ways you now regret – or not push enough? Or when you were a child, did you ever feel pushed too hard or not enough?

These were the questions we posed to you, our audience, at the conclusion of our story highlighting a troubling situation in Ghana: Parents in the capital city of Accra are putting their kids in strict, academically focused preschools at ever younger ages – but tests suggest most kids aren't actually learning much. And when the government tried an experimental training program to get teachers to shift from call-and-response drills to a play-based approach, the results were hugely promising — until the moms and dads started getting involved. The researchers say the parents' anxious inquiries about their children's progress may have caused teachers to revert to the stricter, but less effective style.

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All of which points to a dilemma of parenting: Sometimes a parent's determination to give a child the best possible start becomes the very thing that gets in the way.

How has this challenge played out in the lives of NPR's audience? Your answers ran the gamut. A mother of four regrets pushing her older two children — but found her footing with the youngest two. A former foster child explains why his grandparents' no-excuses attitude proved his salvation. An Indian immigrant mother recounts that in her family each successive generation of parents has reversed the approach of the one before – swinging like a pendulum between pushy and relaxed.

Herewith a selection of responses, edited for length and clarity – and with some names withheld at the writer's request to protect their family's privacy.

"You don't want to be a doctor? Then become an engineer. Done!"

As a young girl growing up in India my parents expected me to become a doctor. Once in middle school, I confessed that I didn't like biology and that I would hate to be a doctor because I would have to perform surgeries. Their response: "You don't want to be a doctor? Then become an engineer. Done!" My parents never considered that I just might want to be something else. "Oh no!" they would say. "Everything else is a risk." So I became an engineer and I loathed it. The minute I went abroad, I switched fields. Now, I work in global health. I earn little but I am content. And I have a peppy daughter who is in preschool and is awash with possibilities. My partner and I let her dream about what she could become — not the other way around.

— Anonymous

"I wish my parents could have seen what [my brother] was good at."

I grew up as a second generation Chinese American, the first of four kids. When I was young, my mother drilled me in spelling and math and helped me with my homework. But after elementary school I never received any pressure or help. My parents were too busy with the younger three. I excelled in school nonetheless because I genuinely enjoyed learning. Meanwhile my parents pushed my brother hard because he was the first son in the family and did not do well academically. I wish my parents could have seen what he was good at (working with his hands) and encouraged him to try different routes besides the academic path. I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old now. I just want to instill in them a love of learning because that's something they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

— Tiffany Cheung

"I wish I'd had just one person tell me that help was available."

As a young child I loved reading and learning, and by the third grade I was placed in accelerated classes. But when I started to struggle with math, my teachers and parents (who were teachers themselves) were mystified. I was one of the "smart kids," and everything else came easily to me. So I was kept in the accelerated classes, not offered tutoring or testing, and just expected to struggle through. Doing math homework brought me to tears nearly every night. I became deeply ashamed of how hard math was for me, and I worked hard to hide my failing grades. In high school I developed test anxiety and had a panic attack in the middle of my AP statistics test. In college I never took math classes despite wanting to be a biological anthropologist. But recently, I helped fundraise for a free math tutoring program. I wish I'd had just one person tell me that help was available rather than pushing me to stay in advanced classes that made me feel like a fraud.

— Anonymous

"I still feel guilty for watching TV."

I was the kid everyone is trying to raise: 4.0 GPA, extracurricular activities, college scholarship. I read early and well above grade level. My parents never pushed me explicitly but it was little things. In the eighth grade my mom stressed about my science project because, she said, it might impact my college admissions. So I knew that anything less than perfect was in some way a failure. I did fine academically but struggled in other ways. Socially I'm still way behind. It's taken years to relax enough to have hobbies, and I still feel guilty for watching TV or playing computer games (though never for reading). Now I have a young son, and we're sending him to a private school precisely because it does not have homework. I don't want him in the pressure cooker. If he wants to be college-bound, he will have my support and encouragement. If he wants to be a plumber, that's okay too.

— Anonymous

"A hard lesson for this mommy."

When my oldest son was in first grade I nearly destroyed his self-confidence over the times table. I myself had been an A-student and never struggled with learning. So I simply couldn't understand why my child couldn't master the times tables. I would make him practice for hours with the microwave timer. Several years later, when my next oldest – his sister — was actually failing fifth grade, I lost it. It was a hard lesson for this mommy to realize that my unrealistic expectations were setting my older two children up for failure. My oldest told others he was just stupid. My daughter was severely depressed. There is a happy ending. I realized I was the problem. It was an adjustment, but I learned to be the parent my children needed. When it came to the younger two of my four children I did not place the same kind of pressure on them. The happy ending: All my children went to college and are well-adjusted, happy adults. And I constantly remind their parents to let my grandchildren have fun!

— Robin Borrows

"Reading whatever I jolly well pleased."

My father gave me a huge gift in the form of a thirst for information. So when I should have been doing homework I was reading whatever I jolly well pleased. For my entire adult life, I taught high school, always trying to spark the approach I learned as a little kid: There's so much stuff you'd really love to know that I can't give you. Get yourself going on your own at what grabs you and use this school stuff just to back that up.

I'm now 88, and only last night I got a call from a boy I taught 51 years ago. He has just retired as a teacher and said he used to tell his students that school is not for today's assignment but to show you how to learn what you want to know. No pressure. If you don't do what we're doing, let me see what you did on your own. This was my father's message.

— Anonymous

"I learned how to do for myself."

After bouncing around in the foster care program for a few years, I was taken in and raised by my grandparents. I was smart and tested well, so I made good grades all throughout elementary and junior high. But I stumbled when I hit high school because I didn't know how to study. Both of my grandparents were very "education first" types. I had behavioral issues and was in trouble often. Nothing major, but the principal's office was a familiar place to me. My grandfather had never graduated high school, but he could do addition, subtraction and multiplication in his head faster than I could with a calculator. He and my grandmother both pushed me to "buckle down, shut up and learn" when I was in school. The teachers also pushed me to succeed. But I don't feel like that was a bad thing. It kept me from being lazy. I learned how to do for myself and not to depend on someone else to do for me. I am a manager now and I see the education level (or lack thereof) of people coming in for jobs. So many display a lack of drive and curiosity — and an apparent inability to think abstractly — that makes me wonder about our ability to problem solve in the future.

— Tommy Little

"They just dumped us into the school system and hoped for the best."

Both of my parents came from poor Mexican families. My father only made it to second grade and my mother to high school equivalent education. When my siblings and I went to school, we didn't get pushed to do well in school by our parents. They just dumped us into the school system and hoped for the best. The schools and teachers didn't have that many resources and my parents never had dreams for us of further education beyond high school. They couldn't imagine it, and so I didn't either. It took the military and friends (who came from higher resources) to give me a push toward higher education. After the military, at a Texan university, I consumed knowledge as I'd never done before.

— Rebecca Rainear Wills

"A pendulum"

I think with kids and parental pressure, it's a bit of a pendulum. My husband and I grew up in India. My husband's grandparents had pushed his parents hard on academics — to the point of resentment. So this may be why his parents did not push him much. My parents also did not push me very hard. They did not have to. I always got good grades in school. So now we push our kids a bit more than our parents pushed us. My kids complain a lot about my pushing them. So I am sure they will not be as pushy when they get to be parents.

— Anonymous

"Letting go of the outcome"

Our middle child has mild intellectual disability. We cannot predict her future outcome, and it taught us so much about trying to predict the future for our other children. I think parents pressure their kids because they have an expectation of how they should "turn out." But we often don't bother to ask where those expectations came from, or whether they are reasonable. Our son was struggling in a few areas, and I realized we were talking about it with catastrophic language. "He'll never succeed if he doesn't..." "He'll never hold a job if he can't..." We suddenly realized that we were talking about future outcomes with no idea of the milestones between here and there. What are the steps between 11-year-old boy and 21-year-old man? Letting go of the outcome and focusing on what's appropriate for the here-and-now changes our whole approach for the better.

— Anonymous

"When you twist a bolt too hard."

Sure I push my kids. It's part of the learning process — not just for them, but for me too. But how to know when to stop? Ah, that is where the tire meets the road! When you twist a bolt too hard, you know you are going too far. Same with your kids. When pushing them to achieve, and the outcome is starting to be less positive, OK, time to ease up. But that doesn't mean someone else, such as a sports coach, can't push harder and get better results. The difference and the most important thing to remember is that your kids need you to be their parent first and foremost 24-7. When demands for achievement interfere with the parent-child relationship, that bolt you are trying to twist is about to snap. Then it's time to look that fantastic kid in the eye and say, "This isn't working too well, is it? Let's just goof around for a while. Bet I can make a funnier face than you can!"

— Jeff Deutschle

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