It turns in an instant. You walk into your daughter’s classroom smiling, only to feel your heart sink when you realize she’s the only kid whose artwork isn’t on the wall. You felt good about your decision to spend a relaxed summer at home, until you realized the neighbors’ children spent the summer learning Mandarin. You aren’t a bad person if today’s culture of high-pressure, high-stakes parenting makes you feel anxious, irritable, and controlling. Your reactions are rooted in evolution and stem from love, says Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D, who dubs it the “pressured parent phenomenon.” In her new book with co-author Kathy Seal, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising A Successful Child, Grolnick suggests the best thing many of us could do is take a deep breath and relax.

Grolnick, the mother of two teenagers and a psychologist specializing in motivation, draws on extensive research that shows kids actually perform worse when parents bribe or push them to achieve. The key to children’s success, she says, is intrinsic, or internal, motivation - the kind that parents can encourage but not enforce. While it’s natural for anxious parents to tighten the reins, encouraging autonomy leads to better results. “It’s not a choice between a healthy, happy child and a high achiever,” says Grolnick. “I think they go together.” Sometimes it seems that schools these days are full of high-achievers competing for scarce spots on sports teams and in honors classes. Don’t let your fear rule your child’s life. Remember:

  • Keep your ego out of it. Your child’s achievements don’t reflect on you.
  • It’s all about intrinsic motivation. Teach your child to value learning for its own sake. Ironically, kids who genuinely enjoy a subject tend to perform better than kids going for the grade.  
  • Some subjects will never be inherently rewarding. When that’s the case, empathize and use “I agree” motivation to encourage your child. This means explaining why he should bother, rather than threatening or bribing him (“you’ll never get into college with those scores!”)
  • Stay away from bribes. While your child may want the reward, he’ll do better when he’s genuinely motivated. Offering bribes can be a form of control – effective in some instances or as spontaneous treats, but backfiring when the child feels pushed.

Of course, these strategies can be hard to follow when your daughter bombs at the spelling bee and her friend places first. “It hits you in your gut, not in your head,” admits Grolnick. When you start feeling panicked, take a step back and look at the big picture. Is your goal to have her win one contest, or enjoy the process so she’ll continue learning? Parental competition is taboo in our society, but admitting your feelings to other parents can be a great way to gain perspective. Everyone feels anxious at times; everyone gets overly involved with children’s success. Ultimately, though, it’s up to our children to find their own wings. “Have faith in children’s motivation and inner strength,” urges Grolnick. “Following that, and nurturing that, will be best in the end.”