Prioritizing Achievement Could Have Negative Consequences for Your Children

Written by Ariana Crisafulli


Posted on November 30 2021


Whether we realize it or not, the world is becoming increasingly complex and demanding. The pressure to succeed is reaching a boiling point. We may feel this at work or we may see it in the intricate algorithms that power the social media that rule our lives. And no one feels this more keenly than children.


We might be tempted to look at the young generation and say to them, "You don't know how good you have it." After all, they don't have to pay bills or support a family. It can be easy to forget what it's like to be a child. In any case, being a child or a teen in today's world is much different than it was when we were young. These days, children who are still forming their identities have to also contend with an increasingly competitive environment, whether it's in the classroom or online.


We as parents feel it too. We see how outstanding you have to be in order to succeed, and we only want what's best for our children. It's understandable that we would worry about their future and that we would be tempted to push them to excel. However, recent research shows that putting too much pressure on your children to succeed could be detrimental to their health. 


Very Well Family says that putting too much pressure on your children could result in:


  • Higher rates of mental illness. Kids who feel like they’re under constant pressure can experience constant anxiety. High amounts of stress can also place children at a greater risk of developing depression or other mental health conditions.
  • Higher risk of injuries. Athletes who feel a lot of pressure might continue to participate in sports despite injuries. Ignoring pain or returning to a sport before an injury has healed could lead to permanent damage.
  • Increased likelihood of cheating. When the focus is on achievement rather than learning, kids are more likely to cheat. Whether it’s a young child catching a glimpse of a classmate's answer on a test, or a college student paying someone to write a term paper, cheating is common among kids who feel pressure to perform well.
  • Refusing to participate. When kids feel the goal is to always “be the best,” they’re not likely to participate when they aren’t likely to shine. A child who isn’t the fastest runner might quit playing soccer and a child who isn’t the best singer in the group might stop performing with the choir. Unfortunately, that means kids won’t take opportunities to sharpen their skills.
  • Self-esteem problems. Pushing kids to excel can damage their self-esteem. The constant stress to perform interferes with children’s identity formation and causes them to feel like they’re not good enough—or even that they will never be good enough.


Prioritizing children's achievements over their own inherent worth sends the message that internal validation is not enough. Instead, many children and adolescents feel that there is an expectation for them to succeed, and they end up internalizing these messages. So much so that they become self-critical and obsessed with perfection.


A new study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, and that includes parents. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). Social media has only raised the bar in the pursuit of teen perfection.


So how do we help our kids? How do we keep them from self-criticism and still give them the tools to succeed in a highly competitive world? We might be tempted to tell our kids,"I just want you to be happy. Don't put so much pressure on yourself." But, according to Rachel Simmons,  author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards to Live Healthy, Happy, Fulfilling Lives, this may be making things worse. Saying, "Don't put so much pressure on yourself" lays blame at the feet of your kids, sending the message that their health is in their hands, and that they're not doing this right either. This is especially harmful when your actions send a different signal than your words. Telling your children that you only want them to be happy, but criticizing them if they don't do well on a test may also lead to a lack of trust. Children may feel that they don't have a safe support system, leading to higher stress levels or feelings of isolation.


It's also important to remember that even if you really do mean that you just want your kids to do their best, that they might be facing pressure from outside sources like coaches or peers or social media influencers. Instead, try to sympathise with your child. Talk to them about the pressures they're facing and take them seriously when they say they're stressed out. Let them know that you're there to support them if they need it, and offer that support when they come to you.


Paramount to raising a well-adjusted human is prioritizing traits like kindness toward others over achievement. This may seem counterintuitive to encouraging success, but according to recent studies, emphasis on kindness and connection in the home has a high correlation with academic excellence, compared to kids raised in a home where achievement is the number one priority. Kids who grow up believing that kindness is key also have reduced anxiety, stress, and depression compared to their peers who are pushed to succeed. 


The study concluded that there is more value in being socially-oriented and in building strong networks than in focusing solely on personal achievement. When the highest priority is on achievement and success, children tend to develop the sense that external validation is paramount, which often results in feelings of low self-worth. 


The researchers of the study make clear that encouraging success in and of itself is not detrimental; it may indeed be helpful. As long as the highest priority is kindness, self-worth, and social ability. The key, like many things in life, is balance.


We hope this article was helpful! Please share any of your own thoughts, insights, or tips on this subject in the comments section below.