Here’s How Parents’ Reactions To School Performance Influence Their Children’s Wellbeing

By Emma Young

What do you do if your child comes home with a lower score on a test than you both expected? Do you praise their efforts and focus on what they got right? Or do you home in on the answers that they got wrong, hoping this will help them to do better in future?

Research shows that the first, “success-oriented” response is more common in the US than in China, where parents more often opt for “failure-oriented” responses instead. Recent studies in both countries have found that success-oriented responses tend to encourage psychological wellbeing but not necessarily academic success, whereas failure-oriented responses can foster academic performance, but with a cost to the child’s wellbeing.

Jun Wei at Tsinghua University, China, and colleagues wondered what might drive these observed relationships: do different response styles lead children to form different concepts about what their parents want for them — and is this what produces the opposing impacts on wellbeing? In a new paper, published in Developmental Psychology, the team report some intriguing answers to these questions.

The researchers studied 447 American children from three schools in the US and 439 children from a school in southern China. The children were in the same grade of school and were, on average, 13 at the start of the study. They completed a batch of initial surveys, and then a further batch a year later.

In one of the initial surveys, the children were asked to imagine that they had done very well and then very poorly on a school test, and indicate the extent to which they thought their parents would emphasise the successful aspects of their performance, or the negatives (e.g.  “My parents would talk about why I didn’t get an even higher score” if they had done well, or “My parents would talk about how I had not worked hard” if they had done poorly).

Along with surveys of general wellbeing and symptoms of anxiety and depression, the children also answered questions about their perceptions of their parents’ goals for them. Responses to statements such as “How important is it to your parents for you to believe in your abilities?” were used to probe parental goals relating to self-worth, while statements such as “How important is to your parents for you to always try to overcome your weaknesses?” explored the extent to which the children thought that their parents held “self-improvement” goals for them.  

The team found that, in both countries, children who felt that their parents were more success-oriented in their responses were more likely to feel that their parents held self-worth goals for them, and statistically speaking, this went a long way to explaining higher levels of general wellbeing in this group a year later. In the US only, stronger perceptions that parents held self-worth goals were also associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression a year on. Why wasn’t this seen in the children in China, too? It might be because children in China are subject to more academic stress, because of the format of the school examination system, the team suggests — and the impact of this on symptoms of anxiety and depression overwhelms any variations relating to parental response style.

In both the US and China, the team also found that the more parents used failure-oriented responses, the more the children felt that their parents held self-improvement goals for them — and in China only, the more they felt their parents were concerned about their self-worth too. This may be “because Chinese parents convey their belief in their children’s potential by urging them to strive to do better”, the researchers write.

However, failure-oriented responses from the parents were also associated with decreased wellbeing among the American children, and higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms in kids from both countries.  “It could be that when parents highlight the negative aspects of their children’s performance, adolescents feel incompetent, regardless of whether they perceive their parents as wanting them to constantly strive to self-improve,” the researchers write. “The thwarted need for competence may dampen adolescents’ psychological functioning.”

The team did home in only a few dimensions of the parent-child relationship, which is, of course, complex. For parents everywhere, it would certainly be interesting to know whether the positive academic effects of a failure-oriented response style could be gained without a cost to wellbeing — could an emphasis on praising successes with a dash of observation of any failures of effort work best, perhaps? I know that as parent, that’s what I aim for. But only future research will reveal if it’s actually a good strategy for my children.

Parents’ Responses to Their Children’s Performance: A Process Examination in the United States and China

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest