The failure in pressuring kids to succeed


“Don’t be afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still…” – Chinese Proverb

At a recent Career Day at an Atlanta elementary school, I was asked to present four 20 minute Student Success Project “Real Life Talks” throughout the day. Twice, out of the four sessions, the problem of their parents pushing them too hard was discussed. And this was in elementary school! It’s not out of the mouth of babes but rather from the already frazzled minds of young students.


Our kids (all grades) are embedded in a culture driven by competition and perfectionism, where success is defined by status, performance and appearance. These values are transmitted to our children nonverbally through our emotional reactions, what we pay notice to, are impressed with, and praise or discourage in them.

Pushing students to be the best is well intentioned. We worry that they will be left behind in a hyper-competitive world. But the notion that being the best and having the most brings happiness is just an illusion. Obviously, future success is not determined by good grades, Ivy League acceptances, or inflated self-esteem.


Ironically, parents’ hyper vigilance about teens’ grades and future success backfires psychologically and academically. When parents are overly invested in performance, kids are less likely to develop their own, more sustainable, motivation.

Further, making the stakes too high engenders fear, leading kids to avert possible failure at all costs. This level of stress propels homework avoidance, compromises executive functions, inhibits curiosity and new challenges, and increases lying.

Some students are able to be compliant under pressure, but compliance replaces problem solving, judgment and autonomous thinking – capacities needed for self-reliance, fortitude and success.

Without the space to find their own way, they fail to develop an inner-directed sense of self to anchor them

Alternatively, encouraging our kids to think and advocate for themselves, make their own choices, and experience natural consequences of their decisions fosters the development of identity, values, responsibility, and competence.

Excessive worry about teens’ success can also lead parents to be over involved and intrusive in areas where teens should make their own choices. Failing to be vigilant, set effective limits and help in areas where they are vulnerable leads to compromised judgment and impulse control.


In fact, success is correlated with psychological capacities including: optimism, curiosity, a sense of oneself as capable (different from self-esteem, which is about self-worth), and the ability to manage negative emotions and weather obstacles These capacities develop in the context of secure attachments with parents, which occurs when we give kids space by being present, responsive and interested – rather than reactive, controlling or preoccupied. – South Florida based Mental Health Counselor Lori Moldovan IMH.


The darker side of our culture of performance and perfectionism, and its manifestations in families, is well documented. It is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, lying, eating disorders, recklessness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-reproach, cutting, and suicide.

Not pushing is important especially if you want your children to trust you and feel secure that your love for them is rooted in knowing who they are and not who they might someday become. Secure dwellings and people are built from well-made materials set on strong foundations, not from physical (or emotional) forces pushing and pulling them onward and upward. When such forces withdraw (as they all eventually do), the structures fail, because they are not internally or structurally sound. Sensitivity, support, and encouragement will lead to a child who delights in learning, now and for life.

Even American Economist Richard Thaler chimes in on this, “A nudge is some small feature of the environment that attracts our attention and alters our behavior.” And that sounds much better than a push or shove.

This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Consulting. He can be reached at 305-788-4105 or email at and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project. Lori Moldovan RMHCI can be reached at 786-747-2855. She works with adults, couples, teens and children with a wide-range of mental health issues.

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