As much as parents may aspire to have their children earn stellar grades, a gap between hopes and realistic expectations results in decreased academic performance. This is the finding of a study published today in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study, “Don’t Aim Too High for Your Kids: Parental Overaspiration Undermines Students’ Learning in Mathematics,” unseats decades of thought on the role parental aspirations play in a child’s academic success.
What parents want for their child has long been considered a key factor in children’s performance in school. Studies conducted in the 1960s found that children who perceive their parents hold high expectations, tend to perform better than students whose parents hold lower expectations. It seemed parents could influence their child’s performance by simply aiming higher. For example, students from middle- and upper-class households were more likely to consider college. Generally, their parents expected this.
Researchers believe that environmental cues, such as parental beliefs, motivated children’s behavior. These findings led to educational interventions that sought to promote parental aspirations. In theory, children with low socio-economic status could achieve the same as their wealthier counterparts if their parents emphasize the importance of this achievement. This new study questions if parental aspirations could have a down side.
“Unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance. Simply raising aspiration cannot be an effective solution to improve success in education.” — Kou Murayama, PhD. Lead author
The study authors compared math assessments with parental aspirations and expectations for 3,530 students in Bavaria, Germany. They found that high aspirations did lead to increased academic performance, but only to the extent that the aspirations were realistic. When parent’s hopes exceeded actual expectations, academic achievement decreased proportionately. Researchers replicated the study with 12,000 American students and found similar results.
Blindly increasing aspirations can have negative consequences. Excessive parental control or over-involvement (the helicopter parent syndrome) may be one reason for this effect. Children subjected to unrealistic expectations may suffer achievement anxiety and loss of self-efficacy. Study lead author Dr. Kou Murayama believes these findings indicate that parents need information to help them develop realistic expectations.