Unrealistic parental expectations of a child's abilities and potential seem to be the most common cause of stress among students. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

The biggest stress for students: parental pressure

Anjali Hazari sees at first hand the harm of unrealistic expectations

As an educator and parent for nearly three decades, I am pleased to read concerns about students being under too much academic pressure. While parents often identify the source of the pressure as results-oriented educational systems and schools giving too much homework, I get mixed messages when I sit on the other side of the parent-teacher conference table.

From where I sit, unrealistic parental expectations of a child's abilities and potential seem to be the most common cause of stress among students.

Generally, high achievers and Asian parents find it difficult to accept a less-than-stellar performance from their children.

For example, a student might be advised to take the core, rather than the extended, paper in an International General Certificate of Secondary Education exam. Parents immediately resist the recommendation, given that the maximum grade would then be a C. Their response is fairly consistent: "We'll get him (her) a tutor and he (she) should get an A."

Then there is the International Baccalaureate (IB) subject selection, where parents often insist their child should take the higher-level option even though the child doesn't meet the grade requirements. When students struggle to understand the concepts of a demanding subject and its accompanying workload, concern is raised that the student is under pressure. However, it's neither the school nor the teacher that is subjecting the student to stress - it goes back to subject selection. Sometimes, it goes back to selecting the appropriate secondary school education for the student.

The number of IB schools may be growing in Hong Kong, but the IB diploma is not for every student.


Yet there is great trepidation in allowing students to take GCE A-levels because universities view the IB diploma "more favourably". And there is even greater resistance to students undertaking IB vocational certificate courses as an alternative. These unrealistic expectations cause performance anxiety among students.

Far be it for me to pass judgment on parents who, in the final analysis, simply want their children to get good grades so they can secure admission to a good university and then get a good job in this competitive society. I have been there. Our first-born's early childhood memories are replete with stress from me to fill cursive writing books neatly and redoing colouring until she was able to shade within each picture.

Although my daughter did eventually manage to achieve her goal of graduating with degrees in international relations and Middle Eastern studies, I had "suggested" she take all science and maths subjects for her A-levels and keep her options open - just in case she changed her mind and wished to pursue a career in medicine, perhaps.

A growing body of literature presents compelling evidence that parental attitudes and behaviour influence their children's affective reactions. Empirical studies from Johns Hopkins University reveal that "ways in which parents get involved and advocate for their children's education rely upon parents' conceptions of academic success".


We as parents need to re-examine our notion of academic excellence as being the only measure of success. And we should give more credence to developing enhanced human values in our children so they may apply themselves wholeheartedly to their various roles in society. We need to see our children as successful simply when they have done their best.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Parents' definition of success is stressing out their children