I remember reading an article on Time Magazine about Ana Homayoun who wrote the book “The Myth of the Perfect Girl”. The book was about how the culture of achievement is taxing on girls, who are expected to do well in school and in life and instead end up trying to meet everyone else’s expectations of them.
If I got the article about the book right, there is a pervasive culture that expects our children to do well in school. In an early age, we enroll preschoolers in additional classes for math and English (such as Kumon or Enopi) because we wanted them to get ahead of their peers in these subjects. I think this is demonstrative of the self-determination theory, except that the self-determination at such a young age is not extrinsic. It did not come from the preschoolers themselves to excel well, but from the parents’ own expectations of how they would want their children to excel in school.
I have a friend and a classmate in high school who was a consistent honor student from kindergarten to elementary. She was very popular in school and excelled in a number of extra-curricular activities. When we were in high school, we had a tough trigonometry teacher. She was very strict and always pushed us on the edge with her exams. One particular grading period (if I remember it right, it was during second grading), we had a very tough final exam, and more than half of the class failed, including my friend. As a result our grades for that particular grading period fell below 80. I think my friend got a grade of 79, which was better than most of us. But she took it to heart so seriously because she was afraid of failing, and she considered herself then as a failure that she was depressed and had to drop out from school. She was fine after a year out of school, but had to transfer to a private high school (we were studying then in a science high school) and graduated a year after us. She did well in life afterwards, because as she shared, she learned a lot from her experience about not punishing herself if she doesn’t meet her own expectations.
I wondered, learning about motivation theories, about how much does the notion of other people’s expectations affect our own sense of self-worth and self-efficacy? Are we as parents pushing our children too hard to excel? Are we afraid that if our children fail, we are a failure as parents as well?
In my experience, when I found out that I failed the exam (I got a grade of 74), I didn’t know how to tell my parents. I was expecting my parents to scold me. One night, before they went to bed, I told my father. “Pa, I failed my trigonometry class. I got a grade of 74.”
My father just gave me a tight smile (I wasn’t sure if he was laughing behind my back after that, but I think he did). “Then do better next time.” And went inside their bedroom to sleep.
I was all smiles after that. The pressure was gone.