You and Your Health
Desire to Please Parents Motivates Kids at School
But study of U.S. and Chinese students finds sense of obligation wanes as American children age.
Children in both China and the United States who want to please their parents tend to do better at school, new research finds.
Yet in the United States, American kids’ drive to please their parents declines during early adolescence, while in China feelings of obligation toward parents stay strong and even grow as kids hit their teenage years.
Researchers attribute that to cultural differences—Americans view adolescence as a time in which teens assert their individualism, while the Chinese believe in “filial piety,” or the idea that it’s a child’s responsibility to bring honor to their families and repay their parents for the sacrifices they made in raising them.
That means for Chinese kids, becoming a teenager doesn’t mean rebelling or pulling away from family life, but becoming a more responsible member of it.
During early adolescence, “U.S. children feel less obligated toward their parents, and less concerned with showing their parents they are responsible members of the family,” said study author Eva Pomerantz, a professor in the department of psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You don’t see that decline in Chinese kids.”
The study is published in the current issue of Child Development.
Pomerantz and her colleagues in China compared the attitudes of 825 middle-schoolers aged 11 to 14 in suburban Chicago and China. Students were asked over the course of two years about school and their parents, including how much they trusted their parents, how much time they felt they should spend at home with their parents, and how safe they felt communicating with them.
In addition, children were asked about their motivation to do well at school, including how important it was to them to please their parents or show them they’re responsible.
Researchers also charted the grades the students received in school.
In both countries, kids who felt connected to their parents, who felt an obligation to their parents and who wanted to please them tended to do better academically.
“Kids who have these high-quality relationships, who feel they can trust their parents and who feel close to their parents, also feel more responsible for their parents,” Pomerantz said. “This sense of connection and closeness plays a role in academic achievement.”
Also in both countries, researchers found kids tended to become less interested in school over time.
Yet, only for the American kids did the declining interest translate into lower academic engagement, Pomerantz noted.
“Like American children, Chinese children are also losing interest in school, but they keep up their engagement,” Pomerantz said. “They don’t find school to be super enjoyable as they used to when they were younger, but they are still putting in the effort and the time into studying, making sure they are paying attention, memorizing their school work.”
So what’s an American parent to do?
In China, the sense of responsibility to the family comes not only from the parents, but the wider culture, so teaching filial piety probably won’t work, she said.
Even so, U.S. parents can set high expectations and make sure kids know what those expectations are, she said.
That doesn’t mean being your child’s best buddy, but being there to teach, guide and set limits as needed.
“The more that parents invest in their children and have positive relationships with them, the more they are creating this sense of reciprocity,” she said. “We need to communicate from very early on to our children, ‘You are a responsible member of the family. I’m willing to do things for you, but it’s not just about me serving you’.”
Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said it’s not surprising that Chinese students, with their greater sense of filial piety, may do better academically.
But adolescence is also a time for asserting independence and developing one’s own identity, including the ability to make decisions, to learn from mistakes and to learn the autonomy that’s necessary to be a successful adult, said Kraus, a spokesman for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Putting kids in overly rigid environments, where the desire to achieve is imposed by parents rather than coming from their own internal drive, can be counterproductive in the long-term, he said.
“In one word, balance,” Kraus said. “The key part of parenting is not to have such control over children that they aren’t able to have a sense of control and identity, but at the same time to offer them the structure and guidance they need.”
A second study in the same journal found that teens turn to their peers in deciding how much autonomy from their parents is appropriate, even as they overestimate how much personal freedom their friends actually have.
Ohio State University researchers conducted two studies to come to this conclusion. First, they looked at more than 500 students in 6th through 9th grades and in 12th grade. Then, they looked at the sixth and seventh graders a year later. Interestingly, they discovered that younger teens and girls wanted freedom more than older teens and boys did.
For more on teen health and emotional life, visit the Nemours Foundation.