Do we expect too much from our kids?
There’s a brilliant article in Slate that I think every parent should read—more than once. “Why Can’t Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?” addresses the pressure we put on our kids to meet milestones before they’re ready.
Parents, the author argues, sometimes have unreasonable expectations for their children; we simply don’t realize that often what we expect from our kids is, developmentally, out of their reach. stress out when they don’t meet those expectations, and we react accordingly, either with disappointment or punishment. We’re especially off when it comes to psychological development. “The research shows,” he writes, “that we consistently overestimate their self-control, ability to persevere and stay on task, consistency of performance, and social ability.”
(Incidentally, the author, Alan E. Kazdin, is a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, director of Yale’s Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, president of the American Psychological Association, and author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.)
I read this article and saw myself in almost every sentence. I’m definitely guilty of this kind of pressure. Most of my conflicts with Henry stem from my own anxiety over his development. There are his issues with food—shouldn’t he be eating a more varied diet by now? There are also the things that his friends are doing, and I wonder why he isn’t doing them, too. All of his friends are swinging on the monkey bars every chance they get, for instance, but Henry won’t go anywhere near them. Is his reluctance a lag in physical development? Comparing our kids to their friends is another common mistake, according to Kazdin. We forget that there are huge variations in each child’s development, and we set our standards “with a too-small sample group drawn from personal experience: our own first child, a neighbor’s child, or our own unreliable childhood memories of how our parents raised us.”
And Kazdin says that we shouldn’t make too big a deal of our kids’ dishonesty or insensitivity; children can sometimes act like pint-sized sociopaths, but it’s often part of their development and doesn’t necessarily indicate trouble down the road. “Don’t crank up the pressure unnecessarily,” Dr. Kazdin advises, “by making every single one of your child’s behaviors into a slippery slope, a domino, or an occasion to draw a line in the sand.”
Oh, how that sounds like me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fretted over six-year-old quirks that I fear might become permanent features of his personality. If Henry denies that he nabbed the remainder of the Oreos (as chocolate crumbs are flying out his mouth), I see a con artist in the making. If he tells his best friend that he plays all wrong, I worry that he’s going to grow up into a friendless control freak. My fearful prophesying kicks in whenever he acts in some way I dislike. The fear of him becoming a childish adult because he’s childish now (at the age of six) is kind of ridiculous, and it’s led me to deal with him more sternly than I would if I stepped back and put things into perspective.
Setting expectations too high isn’t just unfair to your kids—it’s also going to backfire. Putting undue pressure on your child—and yourself—can lead to stressed-out, shrieky parenting, which will encourage nothing but defiant behavior. This can escalate a minor event into a big problem, one that could potentially damage your relationship with your kid—and surely won’t address the issue at hand. Instead of starting a push-pull dynamic, Kazdin recommends gently “shaping” the kind of behavior you want. Lower your expectations and take on challenges in baby steps. “It’s only human for parents to tend to expect that our children can do more than they can really do. Even slight adjustments of your expectations to compensate for that tendency…can produce surprisingly excellent results.”
Have you been guilty of the same kind of high-pressure parenting that I’ve exhibited in my worst moments? I like what Kazdin’s saying (obviously) but I can see how it might seem a little too easygoing for some parents. What do you guys think? Is this attitude a step in the right direction? Is lowering our expectations healthy, or does it express a lack of faith in our kids?
Published November 14, 2008.
Last updated August 21, 2013.