The line between expecting too much from your child and expecting him to give the best of himself is rather blurred: How far should you push him to achieve his goals? Just how much “pressure” is too much and when is it not quite enough? When do you know whether you need to push harder or to loosen up?
We all want our children to be happy and successful but how do we get there without expecting too much and breaking their spirit? Lady Bird Johnson once said that “children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.” In other words, your child is likely to behave according to what she believes is expected of her, and research seems to support these views: If you want your child to thrive, you must hold “great expectations”.
A number of studies have found that parental beliefs have a great impact on children’s success.
In other words, what you believe your child is capable of achieving largely influences his academic and social outcomes. What this means is that you have the power to influence the kind of person your child is, and the kind of adult he becomes:
- If you show your child that you believe that he is capable of better performance, he is likely to perform better.
- If you show her that you think she’ll never make it, she is likely to think of failure as a fundamental part of her nature and to put in less effort.
- If you make excuses for your child’s behavior, you will simply give her a reason to behave in line with what you expect of her.
Having great expectations, however, means believing in your child’s capacities and letting him know that nothing but his best is acceptable. It would be naïve to think that simply believing your child can perform better will radically transform his performance. Believing in your child’s capacities also means giving him the tools to perform better and working to help him develop a growth mindset:
- What can I do to improve?
- What will I do differently next time?
- What can I do every day to become stronger?
Research suggests that the most successful kids have parents who hold high expectations and encourage and support their children to meet those expectations. One study sought to determine whether being a “hands-off” or a “hands-on” parent had an impact on teenagers’ behavior. “Hands-on” parents were those who had high expectations of their children, monitored their activities, and expected them to share in family meals. “Hands-off” parents had few expectations and hardly monitored their children’s activities.
1000 adolescents participated in the study. The researchers found that drug use was more common in teens in “hands-off” families. Moreover, these teens reported poorer parent-child relationships.
Other studies have come to somewhat similar conclusions. For instance, in one study, researchers found that children performed better academically when their parents had high expectations, and that parents’ expectations had the strongest impact on children’s performance.
In other words, having faith in your child’s abilities matters more than his teachers’ perception of his abilities. Researchers interested in determining the extent to which parental expectations matter analyzed the differences in student performance depending on teachers’ and mothers’ expectations. 522 participants aged between nine and 16 participated in the study.
The researchers found that even when teachers had little faith in a child’s abilities, the child could still experience positive academic outcomes if his or her mother held high expectations. It must be said, however, that children performed best when BOTH teachers and parents had high expectations.
The studies above all point to one thing: raising a successful child means expecting “great things”, but as in all things, you must be careful of what you expect.
Here are a few tips to help you set “great expectations” in a way that enables your child to thrive.
1) If you aim too high you’ll miss your mark
What happens when you expect more than your child is able to give? He ends up frustrated and gives up, and there is proof to support this view. In a large study undertaken across the United States and Germany, researchers found that unreasonable parental expectations had a negative impact on children’s performance.
So how do you set reasonable expectations?
First, you need to be aware of what your child is actually capable of doing. Believing your child is better than she is will not make her a better performer. It will only put unnecessary stress on her shoulders and could even lead to psychological issues such as anxiety and extreme stress.
Second, your child is an individual. She does not have to behave or perform like her peers or even like her siblings. Remember that negative comparisons are unnecessary and often harmful.
2) If you aim too low you’ll achieve your mark (Michelangelo)
A recent study conducted in Britain by Save the Children found parents guilty of expecting too little from their children. The study sought to determine parents’ representations of early learning objectives. The parents interviewed had children aged between two and 10 years old. The researchers found that parents largely underestimated just how much their children were actually supposed to know.
The problem with low expectations is that they can condemn your child to a life of underachievement and prevent him from achieving his full potential.
3) Raise your expectations gradually
Did you know that it has been proven that your child’s level of confidence improves every time she accomplishes a difficult task? In other words, our children experience greater self-satisfaction when they are able to successfully complete a task in line with their abilities.
It is important to keep track of your child’s performance and modify your expectations accordingly. Gradually increasing your expectations whenever she has achieved her set goals is a great way to set “great expectations”. Also, remember that older kids need “greater expectations” but these have to be in line with their actual abilities. As Martin Seligman has shown, kids who encounter too much failure learn to perceive failure as something they are unable to escape (learned helplessness).
4) Be clear about your intentions
You don’t win a marathon by saying “I want to win the marathon.” You win a marathon by having a specific goal – “I want to participate in my city’s marathon next year” – and then adopting specific habits, e.g. “I’ll run for 45 minutes every day.”
In other words, you get to your objective by focusing on the means: “How do I prepare to participate in the marathon?”
The same is true when it comes to setting expectations. You don’t get your child to improve his spelling by saying, “I expect no mistakes during your next dictation.” You help him develop small daily habits, like learning five new words from the dictionary by himself every day.
If you want your child to thrive, remember that the words you speak shape the person she becomes. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think they can, or you think they can’t, you’re right.”
My Ebook “This is what it takes to raise happy and confident kids” has all the tools you need if you are looking for simple strategies you can start using immediately to help your child develop skills such as independent thought and a growth mindset disposition.
An earlier version of this post was published on parent.co