“I’m not worried about your grades; I only care that you did the best you could.“ This statement in one form or another occurs with amazing frequency in most families. Strangely, many children seem not to believe the words, and instead interpret them to mean that they must get higher grades. Imagine a situation where a child works very hard, and still obtains a mediocre- to- failing score on a test or project. Our reaction to this type of event can go a long way in terms of influencing a child’s motivation to succeed. The mechanisms underlying motivation, and the ways we help our children feel motivated, are areas of importance for our children’s long term happiness and success. In some cases and for some children, the perception of parental pressure to get high grades can result in exaggerated forms of worry and perfectionism. For others it can turn into indifference and a lack of effort. Finding the balance between healthy expectations and excessive pressure to perform is a task all parents and teachers have in common. Recent research on the effect of praise on motivation provides a clue. It was found that students who were recognized for their effort, worked harder and scored higher than students who were rewarded for their grades. Additionally, parents whose reaction to failure was more sympathetic (i.e. “How do you feel about your performance? Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anything you need or want to get ready for next time? Are you ok?”), report increased effort and increased child initiated requests for help. It’s also important to recognize the level of poor performance. Single grades on a test or project involve different types of parent response than semester grades.
In a previous article I discussed the importance of allowing a child to independently manage and overcome failure, as well as the way excessive bribes for performance influence our children. In all cases, parental anger at poor performance has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective, and possibly causes an increase in the undesired behavior or lack of motivation. The most important aspect of motivation is that the child works hard for his own reasons, not to please or compete against others.