How parents’ expectations influence kids’ academic career

Well-behaved children start at home.
File photo. Anne Christine / Getty Images

If you’re comparing your kids’ report card grades or insisting that one is the athlete while the other is the academic, you could be shaping your kids’ lives more than you realize, parenting experts warn.

These reminders about their siblings’ accomplishments only reinforce what each child in your household may think they’re strong or weak at.

Ultimately, it could make siblings feel like they’re competing, according to Alyson Schafer, a Canadian author and parenting expert.

“Siblings want to find very unique places in the family. They don’t want to be like their siblings so they try very hard to reduce competition,” Schafer explained.

“If someone is labelled or recognized for having a certain talent or capacity that pushes the other siblings to let them have that space. If you get very excited about one child’s academic performance, it demotivates the other sibling to try to keep up,” she said.

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Her comments follow American research that suggests that parents’ perceptions of their kids may influence their life trajectories.

“Parents’ beliefs about their children, not just their actual parenting, may influence who their children become,” Alex Jensen, a Brigham Young University professor, said.

“It’s hard for parents to not notice or think about differences between their children, it’s only natural. But to help all children succeed, parents should focus on recognizing the strengths of each of their children and be careful about vocally making comparisons in front of them,” Jensen said.

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How your kids internalize your comments isn’t explicit. Schafer said this isn’t verbalized or even a conscious decision necessarily but it’ll come to fruition in behaviour. “Let him be your scholar, let me be your athlete,” she suggested.

The research – out of BYU and Penn State University – looked at nearly 400 teenagers who were first- and second-born siblings along with their academic achievements.

The scientists asked parents about differences between the siblings, particularly who did better in school. For the most part, it was always the eldest child.

Turns out, if parents believed their child was the smarter one, he or she tended to get better grades. The less capable child, in his or her parents’ eyes, didn’t fare as well.

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There was a difference of about 0.21 in GPA among the siblings in the study.

“That may not sound like much. But over time those small effects have the potential to turn into siblings who are quite different from one another,” Jensen said.

These findings could be tied to years of parental influence.

“A mom or dad may think that oldest sibling is smarter because at any given time they are doing more complicated subjects in school. The firstborn likely learned to read first, to write first, and that places the thought in the parents’ mind that they are more capable, but when the siblings are teenagers it leads to the siblings becoming more different,” Jensen explained.

“Ultimately, the sibling who is seen as less smart will tend to do worse in comparison to their sibling,” he warned.

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The only instance in the study that was an exception was when the eldest was a brother and the secondborn was a sister – the daughters were always more competent in the classroom from their parents’ perspective.

You can try to stop this pigeonholing. Don’t foster a competitive household, for starters.

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Parents don’t do it intentionally, but subtle gestures go a long way, Schafer warns.

Don’t compare the children – when you say that one sibling finished his or her homework, so why can’t the other, you set them up to compete.

Praising one child for getting straight As on her report card, tells her sister that Bs or Cs may not cut it.

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“Praise can feel like judgment and ranking whereas encouragement is focusing on effort and improvement, regardless of your child’s starting skill level. Focus on the energy put into the task – that leaves room for everyone to succeed,” Schafer said.

Your kids are paying attention to what you’re saying and what may be in between the lines.

“They’re developing belief systems and personalities that’ll shape the trajectory of their lives. What you say adds to their concepts of themselves,” she said.

The U.S. research was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Read the full findings here.