In conversation with licensed art therapist, Sruthi Sriram on hyper-competitive parents, unreasonable academic expectations, their effects on children and what to watch out for as a parent or teacher invested in a child’s success.

DD: What is Hyper-competitive parenting? Why does it happen?

SS: Hyper-competitive parenting may include placing relentless academic pressure on a child, and expecting nothing but the best from them. It may mean chastising them for scoring anything but the best and enrolling them in multiple academic and non-academic activities that reduce their downtime and affect their development. Parents who do this may be compensating for missed opportunities in their own lives, pushing their children to succeed fearing failure in a crowded and competitive world, or competing with their peers or family through their children’s grades and achievements.

While it may stem from idealized good parenting, it turns unhealthy when life at school is considered a direct reflection of child-rearing practices rather than the child’s capacities. A child performing well academically is considered a good student while slow learners and average scorers are labelled “aimless” “unmotivated” and “lazy.” This is also a common topic discussed at family and social gatherings, where comparisons are drawn to other children. Research suggests that Asian cultures in specific, use tangible success like academics as variables to burnish the family name as well as bring honour and prestige. These success variables, in turn, augment the family’s position in an Asian community.

DD: Is there a difference between healthy competition and pushing kids?

SS: Competition is necessary for a child to be motivated. I can say that in settings where this does not exist, the child isn’t motivated to perform. This brings us to the question – if a little competition is healthy, where do we draw the line?

Parents who support children succeeding in sports activities, make time for their training and are understanding of the hard work they put in, both in academics and non-academic activities. Appreciating the child for all their efforts and phrasing suggestions in a manner that are not intrusive, yet helps the child is another way of helping them stay competitive without berating them. How parents deal with siblings is also important, especially highlighting individual strengths and not comparing them to one another. Study groups and group projects are also good ways to promote healthy competition where students learn from one another.

As far as competitive parenting goes, miscommunication is where things go wrong. Children can easily feel bad about their interests, guilty for being oneself, of disappointing their parents, and can crumble under the pressure of trying to be someone they are not.

DD: What are the effects of relentless pressure from parents on children?

SS: At the school where I studied, there was a mother who visited every day to pick up her daughter and did not leave until after having met the teacher to learn about her child's progress. Should the progress slightly vary from normal, she demanded special attention. What message did this send the child? That her efforts are unseen and validated only based on external affirmation. Children in these situations can grow up to size their efforts against external factors rather than internal satisfaction and achievements.

Children could feel torn for causing tension in the household or being the cause of their parents’ worries. This can lead to a long-lasting impact that may forever make or break the relationship between parent and child. Also, as the child develops, so does their identity. If they grow up thinking they cannot achieve, limits their thoughts, aspirations and feelings to fit within what is expected. Social skills will drastically drop as they continue to feel incompetent, especially in front of peers and friends who do not face the same issues.

DD: Are there particular instances in your practice where you observed the effects of academic pressure on children?

SS: The school I worked at in Singapore catered to children from lower economic backgrounds. They believed that only education could get you ahead. These children’s parents were daily wage workers, gamblers or alcoholics. Besides the isolation and dysfunctionality at home, they were facing the wrath of a severe education system. In Singapore, every student is classified into a stream. There is the express track, that only caters to students scoring above 90%, the normal track for average scorers and the normal technical, wherein students cannot apply for university until they qualify in the polytechnic colleges for four years. The effects of the school system, geared towards high achievement in exams, with an emphasis on rote learning, memorization, combined with pressure to succeed, affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.”

Here, relationships and friendships gradually fade away, taking with them the support that children greatly require. Students are turned into machines who can only think, focus and worry about their assignments and achievements. Parents resort to emotional negligence, avoidance, physical violence in order to get students to study. This alone has increased the rate of suicide among students in Singapore from the years 2012 – 2014 (when I was there), which is still growing.

A family I interacted with often in Singapore had a bright young boy who scored well, excelled in swimming, arts and loved to play. Following his examination results, where he fell short of two marks to reach the highest possible score, he was beaten, ridiculed, laughed at, and yelled at for his failure at different occasions irrespective of who was present at the time. This was also shared with guests. It did not occur to them to congratulate him for his efforts, or to simply say they were proud of him, which would have motivated him to show more effort. He slowly stopped speaking at all, refused to share comments from the teacher and grew shy and detached. He began to disrespect his parents, act out, cry, and became emotionally challenged – not able to regulate his feelings or share them in an appropriate way.

DD: What signs should parents look for in their behaviour that reflects an unhealthy environment?

The signs of an unhealthy environment can be easy to spot from the outside but take considerable reflection for parents to admit and correct. If you, as a parent find yourself or your peers acting this way, it may help to have a gentle conversation on the subject. For teachers and any child’s well-wishers, it may be in the interest of the child’s success to have a discussion with them and their parents on the subject. Here are some tell-tale signs of pressure that should be addressed.

  • Not recognizing the importance of downtime.

  • Not realizing that a child cannot always study.

  • Beating, admonishing, insulting the child’s abilities based on academics.

  • Over-involvement and presence at the child’s school.

  • Not letting children explore or interact with spaces, people and cultures out of their (parents’ or sometimes child’s) comfort zone.

  • Treating mistakes like dire failures rather than acceptable phenomena to learn from.

  • Comparing academic scores or giving them too much importance

  • Being unable to draw a clear distinction between what they want and what the children want. Right from skills, hobbies, interests and passion.

  • Statements from children like “My mom expects me to score well” rather than “I want to score well on this test” – indicating detachment and disinterest.

A clear indicator of healthy parenting is when children can approach their parents with anything that goes on knowing full well that even if they are in the wrong, they will receive support rather than punishment.

This doesn’t mean that as parents, you must never punish children. Reward and punishment are ways through which a child learns what is good and bad behaviour. A parent who is very lenient is not helping the child by instantly gratifying what it wants rather than thinking about what it needs. The child will grow up to demand the same from everyone else. If your child is in school, make sure to be aware of your kid’s interactions with teachers.

Remember to teach your children about the world and all the opportunities and possibilities in it. This provides hope that despite not being good at one thing, there are always other chances and opportunities to explore their capacities and dreams.

About the Expert

Sruthi is a certified art therapist, formally trained in Singapore with experience coordinating and developing art therapy missions across the Middle East and APAC-regions. She has collaborated with NGOs, charitable organizations, schools and social initiatives in Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Nepal and India besides overseeing projects in Lebanon, Kurdistan and Thailand. These programs were designed to address the devastating effects left behind by war, conflict and natural disasters and to assist the survivors in dealing with trauma through tailored art therapy programs. She is currently working towards establishing a regulatory body for art therapy in India.

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