Think about the expectations you have for your child. What do you expect them to do every day? Make their bed, choose their own outfit, brush their teeth without prompting? How do you expect them to perform in school? Are Bs good enough, or barely acceptable? What about how they perform in extracurricular activities or interact with friends?
Whether you’re aware of them or not, you probably carry a load of expectations for your child.
These expectations are communicated subtly at times, and more obviously at others.
Think back to your first relationship.
The more experiences you had with that person, the more you probably expected them to behave a certain way. Just like in any other relationship, it’s important that you recognize what your expectations are of your children and how you respond when they are and are not met.
Remember that basically everything we do as parents sends a message to our kids and shapes their perspectives. Becoming aware of what we do and how it affects our kids will empower us to make more deliberate and educated choices when it comes to parenting them.
Too High, Too Low, or Just Right?
Are my expectations reasonable? This is a common question for parents and a good one to ponder.
Parents tend to set expectations for their kids based on their own experience—what their parents expected of them or what they themselves believe they’re capable of.
So how do you know if you’re being unreasonable and expecting too little or too much?
1. Consider developmental benchmarks
It’s important for every parent to educate themselves on the development of their kids. If you don’t know what your little one’s brain and body are capable of, you risk expecting too much or too little. Unless you’re raising an unusual prodigy, your six-month old won’t yet learn to walk on their own and your five-year old is not likely to master a calculus concept.
Brains and bodies develop according to a timeline; our expectations should follow suit.
The CDC has laid out clear developmental milestones for each age on their website. How does your child compare? If you notice wide discrepancies, is it because your child is developmentally delayed, or can an adjustment in your expectations push your child to fill in the gap?
2. Get to know your child
Observe, observe, observe! How does your child act when they participate in activities that they really enjoy? Do they exhibit focus, perseverance, and creativity?
By watching your child, you can start to gauge what they are capable of and set your expectations accordingly.
If your child loves to draw, they might sit at the kitchen table with their pencil and paper for an uninterrupted hour. With your help, this same focus can translate to homework time.
High vs. Unrealistic Expectations
Some parents hesitate when they’re encouraged to have high expectations. Many worry that expecting too much of their kids will actually have a damaging effect. And it can!
But there is a difference between high and unrealistic.
If you’ve considered developmental benchmarks, observed your child’s abilities, and set expectations accordingly, you’re probably on the mark. If, on the other hand, your expectations are a result of pride and comparison, you’re likely being unrealistic.
3. Require effort
Your child might not have the unusual musical abilities of Mozart, but they definitely have the ability to sit at a piano and practice.
Regardless of ability, all children are capable of expending effort.
Try pushing your child a little more than usual. When they bring home a failed math test, drill the concepts with them for a set amount of time each day until they begin to master the math. Did your child recently join a soccer team? Take them to the park to practice each afternoon. If you demand perfection, you’re being unreasonable and unrealistic—but if you require effort, you’re asking your child for something they are certainly capable of.
4. Focus on effort
Praise, reward, and encourage effort. At the end of the day, certain measurements like grades and medals can be meaningful as reflections of performance. But be careful not to place your emphasis on performance markers alone.
When you see your child working to accomplish something, celebrate their effort.
By focusing on the effort your child makes, you’ll teach them that success is determined by effort, and not by ability alone. Your child will be more likely and more able to bounce back when they encounter failure. And isn’t that what we ultimately want—a resilient child, who in turn becomes a resilient adult?
5. Don’t compare
Consider these scenarios:
Your friend’s baby started walking at nine months, but your ten-month old hasn’t even started standing. You feel anxious and frustrated with your child.
Your child’s prodigy classmate was invited to play the piano at Carnegie Hall. Another classmate was named captain of the football and basketball teams. Suddenly, your child’s performance certificates and second-string spot seem mediocre.
Your child flunked several math tests. You feel slightly concerned, but at least they go to class. So many kids these days ditch school, and some get mixed up with alcohol and drugs. Maybe the Fs aren’t so bad.
Comparison should not be the primary source of your expectations for your child.
Yes, it’s valuable to see what other people are capable of and what they achieve—this can serve to inspire us and remind us of our own potential. But when we use others’ performance as the main standard for ourselves or our children, we risk feeling irrational pressure and unrealistic expectations.
Get to know your children and encourage them to get to know themselves. If they learn to be extremely honest with themselves, they can be the best judge of how to challenge themselves, and in which areas they are most likely to excel.
6. Pressure or Persuasion?
So what do you do when your child fails to meet your expectations? And how do you encourage them to meet expectations in the first place?
The way you behave throughout the process is just as important as the expectation itself.
Pressuring your kids by using any kind of shame tactics is guaranteed to be detrimental. Be careful to never criticize your children; don’t call them names, label them, or nag them incessantly. And of course, don’t ever act like your love is conditional upon their performance or whether or not they meet your expectations. Withdrawing love or affection when your kids fail will damage their self-confidence and self-concept.
On the other hand, unconditional love is extremely motivating.
Make sure your children know that you can separate them and their behaviors; you love them for who they are, not because of or even in spite of their behavior. In fact, let them know that love is what motivates your high expectations.
Countless studies have proven that the kind of expectations parents have impact how children perform. Kids with parents who have high expectations do better in school in the short term and the long term. These kids tend to have higher levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy, meaning they believe in their own ability to succeed and improve.
Remember that your expectations communicate a loud and clear message.
If you don’t expect your child to sit still at the restaurant, they might think they’re not capable of doing so. Likewise, if you don’t expect your child to do well in school, but instead to only expend mediocre effort, they may believe they’re not smart enough to do better.
Tell and show your children that you believe in them by setting high expectations. And then, follow through with a lot of love and patience.