IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Children get higher grades when mothers are optimistic about their abilities

30 June 2021

A study by the Australian Catholic University, UCL Institute of Education and the University of Sydney has found that mums who are overly optimistic about their children’s academic abilities not only help their children enjoy school more but can also improve their test results.

Mother and daughter standing together in the kitchen. Image: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

The study, led by Professor Philip Parker (ACU) looked at 2,602 Australian girls and boys and the impact of their mothers’ behaviour on their National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) scores.

“We found that when a mother’s beliefs were overly optimistic about their child’s abilities, their child was more likely to improve their NAPLAN scores,” Professor Parker said.

“Increased maternal optimism also increased kids’ interest in reading and maths, and this improvement happened across both primary and high school. This study counters the view you need to be ‘tough to be kind’ as a parent.”

The researchers analysed data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children which is linked to children’s NAPLAN scores. This dataset was collected by the Australian government and was a study of children and one parent who signed up to the study – over 96 per cent of the parents were mothers.

But the research also found that a mother’s powerful psychological beliefs can go both ways.

Dr Jake Anders (IOE) co-authored the study and said: “Our analysis also looked at gender differences and found that mums tend to be more pessimistic about girls’ abilities in maths, and boys’ abilities in English.”

ACU’s Dr Taren Sanders, study co-author, added: “Due to the power of a person’s beliefs, the influence of gender stereotypes on mums may help make those stereotypes actually come true. The study shows how these beliefs are affected by gender stereotypes in ways that could be detrimental to the child.”

University of Sydney study co-author Dr Rhiannon B Parker said: “It was notable that mothers from non-English speaking backgrounds were much more positive about their child's reading skills than mothers for whom English was their first language. But when it came to judging their children’s math abilities, there were no differences between these mothers. We suspect this could be because mothers from non-English speaking backgrounds factor in their family's unique context when thinking about their child's ability in reading.”

Lead researcher Professor Parker concluded: “The study confirms there is no problem being your child’s biggest fan. The rest of society can do the job of providing a reality check on your kid, but you don’t have to – you can be a cheerleader.”



Image: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels