Being a child is hard. While as adults we may idealize our childhood years and daydream about returning to that simpler time, let us not forget that being a kid in today’s society (or at any point in time, really) has its challenges. Most kids feel a lack of control over their own lives; they are often being told where to go, what to do, and how to do it. They may be told what to wear, what sports to play, what to learn about, etc. In addition to the lack of agency they feel, they are also still learning how to regulate their emotions, which may mean that they often feel flooded and overwhelmed. They’re still learning social skills and how to manage conflict with friends without either destroying the friendship or losing one’s voice. Some kids and teens may be learning how to navigate social media, which in many cases may increase feelings of depression and decrease self-esteem. And on top of all of that, they are feeling pressured to excel academically, particularly in a high-achieving place like Northern Virginia.
While being a student is important and essential, many of the kids I see in my clinical practice have a maladaptive attitude toward school. Some of them find it utterly boring; they hate having to learn about topics that are of no interest to them. Some find it completely overwhelming; they feel paralyzed by the workload, which often leads them to avoid completing it altogether. Others feel that school, and specifically their academic performance, is the ultimate litmus test for their self-worth; they put immense pressure on themselves to excel and/or out-perform their peers.
None of these attitudes are particularly balanced or well-suited toward cultivating a healthy attitude about education and learning. The mindset that a child holds toward school can derive from various sources. Some feel pressure from their teachers, who may convey the message that doing poorly on a test is inexcusable. Some are influenced by their peers who want to constantly compare grades and try to one-up each other. Some are intrinsically motivated and put pressure on themselves to succeed, as they feel their academic performance is their sole source of self-esteem and pride. Others are pushed by their parents to succeed, either through praise and/or rewards for good grades or threats about the impact on their future (i.e., college, career, etc.) if they do not excel.
As a parent, you have the ability to influence your child’s attitude about school and learning from an early age. Converse with them about what they learned that day. Show genuine interest and ask specific questions (not just “How was school today?”). Find ways to incorporate what they are learning into real life. If they are studying insects, go on a nature walk and see what insects you can find. If they are learning about different types of measurements, cook a meal together and have them measure out the ingredients. If they are studying the Civil War, take a weekend trip to Gettysburg. Read books together and discuss their opinions and predictions about it. It is also important to validate your child’s feelings about school. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and different interests, so some things will naturally feel easier or more enjoyable to them. It’s okay to be bored by some subjects. Explain to them that school is largely about exposure, and that they cannot figure out what they like or what they excel at without first trying and learning many things.
Perhaps most importantly, parents should be wary of putting too much emphasis on grades. Parents should encourage hard-work, teach their child how to be a responsible and conscientious student, and convey enthusiasm about learning. However, if their sole focus is on grades (especially straight-A’s), they may incidentally instill the idea that effort does not matter, only outcomes. Especially for students with learning challenges or differences, it is important to emphasize their willingness to try. (Of course, if your child’s struggles appear significant, be sure to advocate for them by seeking outside academic support or a psychoeducational evaluation). Over-focusing on grades can also cause one’s child’s self-esteem to become inappropriately intertwined with their academic performance, such that they feel worthless or panicked if they earn anything less than an A. Remember that grades are not necessarily an indicator of intelligence or potential. Excessive pressure to perform may also quash the child’s interest in learning for learning’s sake. Even if you feel that your child is not giving 100% or living up to his/her potential, maybe it is okay for them to do “good enough,” even if it is not great. Check in with your own feelings and anxieties and make sure that you are not allowing them to snowball out of control; one bad test grade, or even a bad grade in a class, or even a tough quarter or two, is not going to prevent your child from getting into college, having a satisfying career, or leading a happy life. If you instill in your child the love for learning, all of these outcomes can be even more easily obtained.
Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D
Licensed Clinical Psychologist.