From the first positive pregnancy test, parents often build up expectations for their baby. And as the little one grows, so do the expectations—emotional, cognitive, moral and academic. While it’s only natural that this should be the case, as children need to be set standards, parents’ expectations can often turn out to be a double-edged sword.

Paul, a young man from Bacau, decided at the age of 19 that he no longer wanted to live. Neither his youth, nor the future he was beginning to build, nor the love of his family were more important to him than his high-school diploma. Saddened by his 7.40 average, which wasn’t enough to get into Cambridge University’s journalism department, the young man threw himself in front of a train. His heartbreaking decision was all the more tragic because, after a review, his average had risen to 8.20, which would have been enough to get him into the British university. Paul’s story sparked an online uproar. Many rushed to accuse the teenager’s parents of pushing him too hard to get high grades. Paul’s parents and those close to them have denied the allegations, but the narrative has stuck in many people’s minds, perhaps because we are so used to the idea that parents need to push their children from behind in order for them to succeed. But is this idea wrong?

There are studies that show that pushing works. Parents’ expectations of academic achievement are a better predictor of children’s outcomes than other popular forms of parental involvement. But for the process to be effective and beneficial, a close and open relationship between parents and children is essential. Parents also need to moderate their expectations and the pressure they put on their children. Unfortunately, the problem is that many parents fail to achieve the balance necessary for healthy parenting.

What do expectations feed on?

The income level or area in which the family lives, the child’s gender and personality, and the child’s current performance all play a particularly important role in shaping expectations of academic performance and achievement. In the US, only half (49.9%) of parents with an annual income of less than $25,000 expect their children to earn a high school diploma. In families with incomes above $75,000, however, 86.5% of parents do. Also, among parents who feel they have invested a lot in their relationship with their children and in their children’s extracurricular activities (visits to museums, concerts, archaeological sites, etc.), 79% expect their children to get at least a high school diploma. And among those who have not invested in extracurricular activities, 69% expect at least a high school diploma.

Fairly or unfairly, parents have higher academic expectations for girls than for boys, and these differences become more pronounced when children are around the age of 12-13. Almost three-quarters (74%) of parents of girls who took part in a major survey conducted in 2003 and repeated in 2007 expected their daughters to get at least a baccalaureate, compared with only two-thirds (66%) of parents of boys.

Parents’ expectations of their children’s future academic performance are strongly influenced by how well their child is doing at the time of the assessment. As many as 89% of parents whose children had only good grades expected them to get a high school diploma when they graduated, while only 39% of parents whose children had mostly poor grades expected their children to get a high school diploma when they graduated.

The Pygmalion Effect

Children whose parents expect a lot from them end up achieving a lot. In an attempt to explain this process, Susan Holloway and Yoko Yamamoto talk in one of their research papers about a kind of value heritage: Because parents value high grades, children learn to value and strive for them. Holloway and Yamamoto are convinced that if parents have low expectations, they are more likely to show ignorance towards the school system, whereas if their confidence in the educational system is boosted by more effective information about its benefits, they will naturally pass this confidence on to their children.  At the same time, the researchers believe that teachers who know what parents expect of their children are more likely to engage with them.

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, high expectations are a subtle but powerful motivator. It’s what psychologist Robert Rosenthal has called the “Pygmalion effect”, after the legend of the Greek sculptor who, fascinated by the beauty of his own statue of a woman, brought it to life through his love and the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite. Rosenthal conducted an experiment in which primary school children were first given an intelligence test. The researchers then told the teachers that five of the pupils scored very high and had real potential for development. At the end of the year, the pupils were tested again and it was found that the nominated pupils had indeed made progress. However, the researchers revealed that their names had been randomly selected from the class and concluded that the result was because the teachers, believing that these pupils had greater potential than their peers, treated them differently.

Helicopter parents and the ideals they pass on to their children

However, studies tend to focus on patterns rather than nuances. One of these is particularly important: parental expectations that come to dominate children’s lives in an abnormal way. Popular literature has coined the term “helicopter parent”. This type of parent hovers over every aspect of a child’s life in order to control it down to the smallest detail. Helicopter parents solve problems and make important decisions for their children. In most cases, such parents show affection and support, but these positive aspects are not enough to counteract the negative effects of their over-involvement in their children’s lives.

In a detailed article, psychotherapist and informal education specialist Dr Elaine Heffner talks about the expectations created by parents’ failed ambitions. Dr Heffner cautions helicopter parents to look at their ambitions realistically, and to remember that although children may be physically similar to them, they are independent beings with their own personalities and lives to shape.

Otherwise, in a family where success is the watchword, any failure will be felt doubly: not only will the parent experience failure, but the child will feel it as a personal handicap. This happens, says Dr Heffner, when parents misformulate their positive expectations, putting immense pressure on the child, but also when parents have negative expectations that arise from faulty thinking. Dr Heffner cites the example of a father who believed that his son’s innate kindness was actually a sign of weakness. As a result, the father enrolled the boy in karate lessons and criticised any hint of cooperative or friendly behaviour towards strangers.

“Because I’m stupid”

Dr Jim Taylor comes up with a peculiar taxonomy of parental expectations to show how they can influence children’s outcomes. He distinguishes between expectations that focus on ability and expectations that focus on outcomes. But he says both are harmful.

By ability expectations, Dr Taylor means situations where parents have certain expectations because they see/hope their child has certain abilities: “We know you’ll win the race because you’re the best athlete.” The problem with these expectations is the lack of control over ability. The child can practise to maximise their ability or talent, but only up to a certain point, within the limits of the genes they have received. Another problem with this type of expectation is that if the child succeeds, he will say “I won because I’m talented”, but conversely if he fails, he will say “I lost because I’m stupid”.

Outcome expectations are those that judge success on the basis of performance. The difficulty arises when, despite the child’s best efforts to achieve a particular result (e.g. first prize), a more able or talented, more committed child appears. The first child will see himself as a failure because he will look at his result in comparison with the result of the more able pupil and not at the progress he has made in relation to the level he had previously achieved. It is very important, says Dr Taylor, to teach children to use the right tools to achieve success: commitment, hard work, discipline, patience, focus, persistence, perseverance, and a positive attitude.

It’s not talent that counts, but effort

Taylor’s views echo those of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck. In a study tracking the development of 400 students, Dweck found that praising a child’s intelligence decreased their motivation and performance.

She explains that praise such as “You’re a quick learner! You’re so smart!” are harmful because they give the child the idea that what matters is a fixed endowment, not the child’s effort to develop using that endowment. Talent is not enough, and those children who are praised for their talent will not strive to achieve. Similarly, those who perceive themselves as lacking talent will not strive to exceed their limits because they do not see this as possible without talent.

In the grand scheme of things, it is clear that it is not how well parents praise their children, but rather the effort they make to encourage their children effectively, that will produce the balanced results they expect. Once parents become aware of the weight of their words and, more importantly, their attitudes in the eyes of their children, they will realise that the same perseverance they wish to instil in their little ones must always be at the top of their agenda as lifelong educators.