As a private tutor, I often get an intimate glimpse into the family dynamics of the students that I help with standardized tests. I've seen families that create productive, nurturing environments in which their children are able to thrive and learn. Naturally, these students not only tend to do the best on test day, but they are also best equipped to handle any of life's other little inconveniences. In these situations, students are able to focus on doing their 'jobs,' both as children and students, whatever that may require.
Unfortunately, I also frequently observe parent-child relationships that are less than ideal. In these situations, the children (anywhere from elementary school to high school-aged kids) are clearly more nervous, fragile, and prone to failing (or just plain giving up) when it comes to education or other pursuits in life.
In observing these different situations, I've naturally tried to discern what kind of parenting strategies tend to create the more desirable environment. I'm no therapist, but I've come up with a list of four key behaviors that seem to promote a much more positive, healthy, productive relationship between parent and child:
Be on the same team as much as possible. All too often, I see family situations in which the child and the parents are working at cross purposes in nearly every aspect of the child's life. As you might imagine, this makes things a lot harder for everyone. I'm not suggesting, at all, that parents and their children should always agree or that parents should never assert themselves for a child's benefit. The point of the parent-child relationship is that parents guide their children into adulthood, and sometimes that means a certain amount of conflict is inevitable.
But it would be better for all parties, of course, if the parent and the child wanted the same
thing, as often as possible. If a child can come to trust his parents' insight, and can truly
believe that his parents know more about the world than he does, then the child is more likely to accept the parent's guidance--and, for that reason, significantly more likely to do well in school and in other areas, in my experience.
In families where this seems to work the best, there is typically a lot of communication
between parents and children, and there is an expectation on both sides that things will be
explained rationally and decisions will not be made rashly. A parent can trust a child more
if the parent knows that the child will not take stupid risks as soon as he's out of sight; a
child can trust a parent more if the child knows that he will not be arbitrarily punished for a
When the parents and the children respect each other, children are much more likely to accept a parent's decision and much more likely to take the parents' advice to heart.
Take note of the child's effort and accomplishments. The children I work with seem to be happier and more responsive to their parents when the parents make a real effort to acknowledge their children's hard work. A lot of today's students, particularly high school students, have less than an hour of time to themselves in an average day; they spend their waking hours going to school, doing homework, and working on extracurricular activities. A student in this kind of situation really benefits from parental encouragement, especially at times when things can seem really overwhelming. If a student thinks that nobody cares how hard she's working, she might--understandably--be tempted not to keep working so hard.
I'm not suggesting that parents should lavish false praise on their children, because that
can create other problems if a child comes to think that even the most routine task deserves
fanfare. But I do think it's a great idea for a parent to let a child know he appreciates that a
child is choosing to apply himself to school, rather than coast.
Don't compare children to their siblings. Far too often, I work with families in which the parents compare the children to one another, instead of holding each child accountable as a unique entity. Let me tell you, from experience, that if one of your children does really well on standardized tests and the other doesn't, the weaker test-taker really doesn't want to be reminded of the fact at every turn. He feels bad enough, I assure you. If you feel that the weaker test-taker isn't applying himself, that's one thing, but whether he's applying himself or not has nothing to do with how the other child scores. It's much better to say, "We really don't feel like you're giving this your best shot, and we think if you apply yourself you can see a much better result" than to say, "Why didn't you do as well on the test as Karen?"
(This works in the other direction, too: Just because one child does better than the other
doesn't mean he's done his very best.)
In the families I've worked with, constantly comparing children to one another often seems
to drive a wedge between the children, or to make one jealous of the other. On top of that, it
never seems to incentivize the'weaker' sibling to excel.
Don't speak negatively about a child when it isn't warranted. More times than I can think of, I've had parents tell me, in front of their children, that the children aren't very talented or intelligent. The first time this happened, I was stunned; after years in the tutoring business, I'm not surprised by it anymore but I'm still saddened by it.
Having a parent state matter-of-factly that you're not very smart is a crushing thing,
obviously, but it has another effect as well: for most children, it only reinforces the idea that
the child will never be smart enough to satisfy the parent, which discourages her from
I'm not saying that you should never criticize a child. There might be times when a child
does something awful that needs to be criticized. But that's different from calling a child
stupid, particularly if the child has really tried to improve himself.
No parent can ever be perfect, and no one can adhere to these strategies all the time. There will always be times when you say or do something around your children that you may regret later. However, my experiences with my clients and their families definitely suggest that doing your best to follow these guidelines can help to create an atmosphere where your child can learn to be hard-working and well-adjusted, with a minimum of stress and conflict.
Mike Barrett is a tutor and teacher specializing in standardized test preparation and admissions consulting. He helps many students each year with their ISEE prep, and often works with them on SSAT prep as well through his company Testing Is Easy.