You can’t make your child be who you want him to be, says Sharon Ramey, director of the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But you can definitely influence how ambitious she becomes. Research shows that the best way to influence a child’s ambition is by being involved in her academic life from an early age and providing support for her future plans.
Parent involvement in academics from middle to high school correlates highly with child aspirations and achievement, according to a study by Nancy Hill et al. published in the academic journal Child Development. Parent academic involvement can include volunteering in the classroom, developing strong relationships and communication with your child’s teachers, and participation in homework and other academic activities at home. The study found that parental guidance and support in schooling was a crucial factor in whether children attended college and developed high career aspirations.
The careers, education background, and socioeconomic status of parents also contributed to the ambitions of offspring, the Child Development study found. The study found that children from high SES families tended to model their aspirations after their parents, including goals such as attending college and attaining professional occupations. High SES children also achieved more academically and demonstrated good behavior in school. By contrast, children from low SES families tended toward ambitions that did not necessarily require college. Parental involvement in low SES families increased ambition, but not academic achievement or productive behavior. The researchers attributed this to outside factors influencing the academic mobility of low SES children compared to high SES children, who had more stabilizing factors contributing to their academic achievement.
Nature and Nurture
Not everything about a child’s ambition can be attributed to parenting, however, says Eleanor Maccoby, co-author of the book "Parenting and the Child's World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual and Socioemotional Development." Genes account for approximately 50 percent of variance in the behavior traits of a child, and parental influence doesn’t do much to change that genetic makeup. The combination of factors influencing a child’s ambitions, personality traits, and ultimate achievement includes genetics, parental involvement and social environment outside of the home.
When studying siblings, the authors of “Parenting and the Child’s World” found that the same parenting style can have two very different results. The parenting environment has different effects on different children, depending on the interplay between their genetics, their separate social experiences and home lives. Regardless of sibling differences, though, a study done by Berkeley developmental researchers found that improving parental strategies and/or parents’ marital relationship correlated significantly with children’s academic achievement and behavior up to four years later.