Expectations

Liz commented as follows to my previous post:

...any thoughts on how to apply this to children? As parents, I think we need to expect certain things from them, to help them function in this world (being polite, not hitting, telling the truth, etc). So it would be tough to lower our expectations of them…

It has been my personal experience that children need clear and challenging expectations from their parents. Indeed, in the absence of clear expectations, children suffer fear and stress. They need to understand the consequences of failing to meet certain expectations. This is certainly validated by the full spectrum of parenting guidance, from academic (Dr. Spock or the American Pediatric Society) to popular (Dr. Phil or Supernanny).

The point is not to lower your expectations, but to set expectations that you can afford for them not to meet. We usually do this without even realizing it. To help our children develop normally and learn new skills, we put them in situations with some risk, but we minimize the risk. We take precautions, so that it’s not so bad even if things don’t go as expected.

  • We know it is foolish to give a toddler priceless fragile antiques to play with, even if we clearly say "I expect you to be careful!"
  • We don't put our home or car in the hands of an seven-year-old and say "I expect you to turn off the iron when I leave!"
  • When we teach a five-year-old how to ride a bike, we do it with training wheels and protective gear in a low-traffic cul-de-sac, and we supervise them.
  • If my four-year-old needs lessons in being polite, I probably wouldn't introduce him to my boss at performance review time. Rather, I would practice at home.
  • If my five-year-old is hitting other children, I would separate them (after putting all heavy and sharp instruments out of reach). I might play with my child myself for short and then longer periods, to encourage play without violence.

The problem is, parents sometimes set expectations they cannot afford not to have met. I don’t mean that they put enormous sums of money on the line or that they put the child’s life in danger, but they do put their own love, pride, patience and good nature on the line. The expectations may seem perfectly reasonable, but parents feel personally affronted, hurt or angry when they are not met, and they lash out with harsh words, blame and punishment. They instill fear or guilt. Furthermore, they rationalize such behavior by asserting that their only choice is between lowering expectations and lashing out. However, rationality and compassion demand that parents consider other reasons why expectations may not have been met…

  • In their limited personal experience, they seemed reasonable, but for the child, they are not.
  • They were not clearly articulated.
  • The child did not understand them.
  • The child understood them, but did not know how to meet them.
  • The child was somehow thwarted or distracted in a good-faith attempt to meet them.

By admitting these possibilities, parents sometimes decide that there are actually good reasons to lower or eliminate expectations. More often, they find creative ways to ensure expectations are met in the future. It is not easy, and multiple failures may precede success, but the compassionate and rational approach is the one that gradually builds success based on trust and security, not fear, guilt, or conditional love.

So, the answer is not to lash out in anger or to lower or eliminate your expectations in disappointment, but to replace disappointment and anger with compassion and rationality.

Tags: Philosophy

Updated at: 1 November 2008 12:11 AM

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