Monday, November 9, 2015

Great Expectations -- Not always reasonable ones

      Every now and then a common theme surfaces in my work with children. It’s a theme that is at the center of many problems. Currently the dominant one is “expectations”. This manifests in two ways, a mis-match problem in two directions.
      One form is unreasonable expectations that children hold about what they are supposed to do or be able to do. The other is confusion between expectations and wishes.
       In the first case, the children seem to think that the bar is set at five feet when it is really set at two. So where do these inflated expectations come from? In some schools the parents have very high expectations. Teachers are also under pressure to prove that they are meeting their own and the district’s expectations. But children are not always good at discerning exactly how to interpret this stew of pressure that they are in. Some few are those blithe spirits who just seem to march to their own drumbeat. They are gleefully unaware of the pressure and just press on. Some like the challenge and have the skills to meet the expanded expectations and understand what they are. Many, on the other hand, either lack the skills or the ability to decipher what actually is expected.
      With my own children, I have sometimes felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at their heels, “Work faster, aim higher.” But my children were blessed with the capacity to completely ignore me and to operate with the “good enough” model of education. It has kept them from some opportunities but served them in other ways.
      Now I see teachers and parents directly and indirectly applying the same pressures. Some children, regardless of their level of competence, interpret the pressure as “You are not measuring up.”The feedback they get often feels quite negative. For example, when they get 18 out of 20 spelling words the question at home is “What about the two you missed?”
      One problem with this trend is that it’s likely to rob children of the highly motivating dynamic of satisfaction. To be able to look at something where they improved in performance, effort or understanding and take satisfaction is sometimes not allowed unless they have met a mystery “criteria.”
      The well-intentioned parent and teacher often say, with all sincerity and the intention to reassure, “Just do your best.” Unfortunately, that too can create anxiety. I’ve had the occasional nervous little children in my office, worried because they weren’t sure what their best was. In response to the “practice makes perfect” pitch that adults often give to children, one wise teacher always says, “Practice makes better.” In my opinion, that’s a better expectation.
      Based on this repeated concern I began doing short classroom presentations on the concept of expectations and on how to understand them and deal with them. Even young children seem to be helped by having this made clearer and more precise.
      The other side of the coin is the unfortunate confusion between wishes and expectations. This is most often a concern expressed by parents of students in Kindergarten and First Grade. These children tend to pitch significant protests when things do not go as they would like. They have wanted something so much that the wish turned into an expectation. Or an unavoidable change of plans did not allow the parent to follow through, and the flexibility needed to roll with that is clouded by the child’s certainty that this expectation is something that absolutely must be fulfilled.
     Some strategies can decrease the problem. It starts with helping the child understand the difference between the two. For this, parents create clear and often silly examples, “You might wish to have a chocolate sundae for breakfast, but you cant expect it. You can expect a nice bowl of cereal or toast and an egg.“ “You might wish that you always win, but you can’t expect it. You can expect to win sometimes.” Parents can even offer examples in their own experiences to help illustrate the difference and the appropriate reaction to each. Simply clarifying the difference and reinforcing children in that understanding has helped to calm many scenes.
     This current issue of expectations highlights the importance of having a shared definition. The lack of it shows up in many situations with children. So often their understanding of a concept and ours is quite different. When I conduct classroom discussions, the observing teachers are often surprised and amused as I ask younger kids to define words like “appropriate” or “bored.” One teacher was especially delighted when one of her students, who had been complaining to his parents that he was “bored”, defined that word as “When things are really hard.”
     So whatever direction we are trying to adjust expectations, it may be helpful to take the time to create a shared definition. Whether it is expecting too much of oneself or too much of one’s environment, there’s room for a little work in the lives of children and adults. 

This and other essays can seen in my book "Parenting? There's Not an App for That." available on

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