Why Your Expectations Drive Your Child’s Behavior
Having healthy expectations of your kids is important. It can help teach them important values like self-motivation, empathy, and respecting their environment, which in turn affects their wellbeing and their future ability to be independent and thrive in our world. When I was growing up, my parents never talked about their expectations of me, other than their favorite motto, which was “be good, have fun, and try hard.” However, although my parents never told me their expectations of me (directly), I knew what they expected of me.
I knew that I was expected to work hard in school and get good grades. I was expected to exercise everyday, be athletic, and join sports teams. I was expected to go to a good college after high school and be successful. And I was expected to tell the truth, no matter what (I found this out the hard way). So, how did I know what my parents expected of me, if they never talked about it?
I learned about my parents’ expectations of me from what was shown, not from what was said; I learned about them from their body language, non-verbals, tone of voice, and their actions. I heard their happy, proud voices when my older sister shared her stellar grades, and their disappointed, worried faces when my brother almost failed out a certain class. There were also hugs and ice cream sundaes for good report cards and goals at a soccer game but no celebrations for lost games, or report cards full of “C’s”.
What does this story have to do with kids’ well-being, and why is it important?
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Expectations and well-being
Many of my parents’ expectations of me as a child still drive my behavior today, and your expectations will do the same for your kids, too.
The other day, Michelle Obama shared on her podcast that she still wakes up each morning with her mom’s words echoing in her ears, “You can lay in bed all you want. I already have my education.” Since Michelle was 5 years old, her mom expected that she got herself out of bed and ready for school on time; to this day, it still motivates Michelle to get up and at ‘em each morning.
So, if you want to be intentional about what your kids will value and how they behave, now is the time to get clear on your expectations. Kids are always trying their best to understand and meet their parents’, caregivers’, or teachers’ expectations. When those expectations are unclear to kids or they feel out of reach, they may act in ways that overtly negate or undermine the expectations. For example, if a teacher has an expectation that all students read books silently after lunch for 30 minutes and one child struggles with reading independently, they may act out of defiance because they know that those expectations are out of reach for them. The expectation is unreasonable.
Creating reasonable expectations of your child are key in creating a harmonious home or classroom environment and in the meantime, caring for a child’s well-being.
How to set expectations with your child
An easy way to make sure you are clear on your expectations is to actually talk about them (and include your kids in the conversation, too). What are the actual expectations you have of your child? What are the expectations you have for yourself? Your students? Your partner? Have a conversation about it. Write your expectations down, and post them somewhere visible in the house, or learning environment. This can be used as a backbone for when things feel muddled or unclear. They can act as a foundation to whatever conversation you are having with your child in the moment.
Then, when you are clear on your expectations, all you have to do is follow-through. Following through on your expectations means aligning your actions with your words, and giving your kids a gentle reminder when they are “out-of-bounds”. For example, if your expectation is that your kids try their best in school, focus your attention on their effort, not their grades or report cards. When you notice they have spent a lot of time working on a project, tell them how proud you are of them and celebrate it. Don’t send the wrong message by celebrating the grade instead of the effort.
If you expect your children to clean up after themselves, bring their attention to the mess they left behind and gently remind them about the expectation in your house, in a calm and neutral tone. The more you act out of consistency and alignment, the more your kids will too.
Kids need and want to have clear, reasonable expectations at home because it provides structure and safety. On the flip side, when things feel “out of hand” at home or at school (their safe zones), it can feel out of hand on the inside too. Give your child the structure they need and the space to create meaning and values through the creation of reasonable expectations for how they treat themselves, others, and their environment.
So, what do you expect of your child, and how will you communicate that to them?
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