Child Rearing and Academic Bevhavior


A second implication of Atkinson’s need achievement model concerns the fundamental nature of need achievement and the question of whether changes are possible in what is often thought to be a basic, trait-like personality dimension. According to McClelland, the characteristic way in which individuals resolve the inherent approach, that is, avoidance conflict posed by achievement situation, depends largely on childhood experiences and subsequent research has borne this out.

Several aspects of child-rearing practices appear especially relevant to later achievement striving. First, parents of success-oriented children expect their youngsters to achieve notable successes. As a result they encourage their children to try new things, to explore options, and to exercise independence, and such parents start at an early age compared with parents whose children are relatively lower in the need to achieve (Winterbottom, 1953). Second, these same parents also provide an uncommon amount of nurturing so that their children will also acquire the skills necessary for independence.

This point is illustrated by the work of Bernard Rosen and Roy D ’Andrade (1959). These researchers administered problem-solving tasks to two groups of young boys, one of which was rated high and the other low in achievement motivation. In one test the boys were blindfolded and asked to build a tower using oddly shaped blocks. Parents could encourage their sons in any way they wished as long as they themselves did not touch the blocks. The parents of the high-striving boys provided far more encouragement, usually in the form of task-oriented tips about how to proceed (e.g., “Put the larger blocks on the bottom”) and expressed more praise when the task was finished.

Moreover, as in the Winterbottom study cited earlier, these parents also expected more of their children and were also more optimistic that their sons would not disappoint them. These same findings have since been confirmed for both boys and girls in the Netherlands (Hermans, ter Laak, & Maes, 1972).

A third line of research initiated originally by Virginia Crandall and her colleagues (Crandall, Katkovsky, & Crandall, 1965; Crandall, Preston, & Rabson, 1960) suggests that patterns of parental rewards and reprimands are also critical to the development of positive and negative attitudes toward achievement. The parents of high-achieving youngsters tend to reward praiseworthy accomplishments, yet ignore disappointing performances.

This pattern is essentially reversed when it comes to the parents of failure-avoiding students (Teevan & Fischer, 1967). Here disappointing performances are seen as violations of adult expectations and punished accordingly – usually severely – while success is met with faint praise and sometimes even indifference. The research cited so far is based largely on observations of children and their parents. But do these same family dynamics hold as children grow older, even into young adulthood? When college students were asked to describe retrospectively the quality of the achievement climate in their homes success-oriented students perceived their parents as employing praise more often in success and punishment less in failure compared with the reports of failure-prone students, who recall the opposite pattern (Covington & Tomiki, 1996; Tomiki, 1997).

These and other results closely paralleled the findings of Virginia Crandall and her colleagues whom, it will be recalled, studied youngsters in the earlier years of family life. Given the apparent consistency of such child-rearing practices over time as well as their early onset, one gains the impression that the tendencies to approach success and to avoid failure found among adults likely reflect fundamental personality structures laid down at the deepest levels. Recently researchers have isolated several other devastating parental reactions to failure, one of which is inconsistency – a tendency to punish failure sometimes and at other times to disregard or even reward poor performances (Kohlmann, Schumacher, & Streit, 1988; Tomiki, 1997).

These reactions have been implicated in the development of “learned helplessness.” Here learners give up trying because they come to believe, often rightly so, that they have no control over their own destiny (Mineka & Henderson, 1985; Mineka & Kihlstrom, 1978). Eventually profound depression, anger, and overwhelming feelings of anxiety can result.

Research conducted by Walter Krohne at Mainz University (Krohne, 1990; Krohne, Kohlmann, & Leidig, 1986) suggests that such generalized anxiety reactions can also be triggered by another different combination of child-rearing strategies. In this particular case, parents provide neither consistent standards by which children can judge their performances nor the intellectual support necessary to develop effective coping skills.

Another disastrous pattern involves aggressive, often overbearing parental demands for excellence, but with little or no guidance for how to achieve it (Chapin & Vito, 1988; Davids & Hainsworth, 1967). Here the child hopelessly outclasses himself by maintaining unrealistically high goals, yet has no way to attain them. This discrepancy between hoped-for and expected outcomes has been associated with the phenomenon of “underachieving” (Bricklin & Bricklin, 1967). Underachievers perform at levels far below their capacity because, as the prevailing argument runs, if they were to try hard and fail anyway – a virtual certainty given such high standards – their self-esteem would suffer. By refusing to try at all, these individuals deftly sidestep any test of their worth.

The over-striver also shares this same ideal-actual discrepancy (Martire, 1956). Rather than avoiding a test of their worth, however, these students are driven to avoid failure by actually living up to their overly demanding ideals. The parents of over-strivers demand excellence, and typically nurture the proper intellectual tools to insure success, but in the process over-zealously pressure the child by also punishing failure.

A generalization regarding the quality of child rearing and later achievement is that students raised in authoritative homes – homes in which parents respect their children’s ideas, and act in accepting ways – are likely to do better in school than youngsters raised in authoritarian environments, which stress obedience and conformity to adult authority (Baumrind, 1991). However, if this is true, then why should Asian American children, whose home life is rated relatively high in authoritarian characteristics, tend to perform better academically than any other ethnic group? And, conversely, why should African American children, whose homes are generally characterized as authoritative, tend to perform relatively poorly in schools?

Lawrence Steinberg and his colleagues (Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1992) suggest that peer-group dynamics may explain these apparent contradictions. Peers who value doing well in school reinforce one another in positive ways academically so that Asian youngsters whose parents and peer groups both push them in the same direction academically perform well in school. In contrast, other minorities, mainly African Americans and Hispanics, have relatively less peer support academically and as a consequence are less likely to do well in school despite warm parenting styles. Thus, according to Steinberg, in order to thrive academically, many minority youngsters must go outside their primary peer affiliation for support, thus splitting their allegiances.