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Do we expect too much from our kids?

By Isabel Kallman

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.
Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.


Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

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  • sarah

    November 14, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Great post! I’m guilty of this unreasonable expectation stuff more with my teenager than toddler. I expect her to be ethical in ways that even I, a grown woman who really values good morals, etc. struggles with. She’s so much closer to an adult than Henry, so it’s that much easier to think her breaches (lies, drugs/alcohol/sexual stuff, tantrums) are indications of who she’ll be as a woman. I am so not what I was at her age (17) so I would do well to treat her like what she is (a kid) not a crazy person in the making, even though that’s what she acts like sometimes.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    November 14, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    Fret not, Alice – I think everyone with their first child frets more. We call our first two kids the prototypes. The younger 4 have much better parents, that’s for sure.
    Although I know that it is not possible for everyone to have or desire a large family, I do find that the more kids you have, the more relaxed you become in the parenting. And that’s a good thing! If you do have only one or two children, try to hang out with parents who have 5 or 6 – it will do you a world of good. I know when I still had only 3, it was very informative and reassuring for me to see how the moms of larger families handled “issues” that seemed overwhelming to me.
    Also, hang out with parents who have older kids – they have a better perspective than you do on the elementary years. Not you, personally – but anyone with only younger children…
    Most of all, just try to enjoy! The years go by way too fast…(well, the teen years don’t, but that’s another story)…

  • Elana Essers

    November 14, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    I have seen my husband assume that because the twins did something well yesterday they will do it again today. Not true. Every day is a brand-new day. It takes repetition to create a habit. Especially a positive one. I find I have to constantly and consistently reinforce positive behavior and redirect the bad.
    The twins’ appetite, attitude, behavior, likes, dislikes, wants, and desires change daily. I can’t imagine that what they are like today will be true a week from now or twenty years from now. I know it is up to me to set a good example (not yelling-much, eating a healthy and varied diet, listening, etc.) . I can only hope that I will be the strongest influence in their lives and they will learn from me how to be a good adult.

  • crazylovescompany

    November 14, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    I think as parents, we just have to do our best. This post gives me something to be aware of though, as we are waiting for our first!

  • MamaCass

    November 14, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I am so guilty…and often realize it in the moment…once I have drawn that line, and therefore must stick to it, but desperately want to take back what I said.
    I did get some really great advice for how to deal with my daughter’s frustrations, fears, anxiety, and even her defiance (be it age-appropriate or not). When talking to your kid, use three steps. Validate the feeling, state your place, and give an alternative.
    For instance, if my lovely toddler is taking out her aggression on her baby sister, I would say, “I see that you are mad, Sister is not for hitting, you could try playing with a baby doll instead.” Or, if she is nervous in a new environment, “I see that you are feeling scared, Mommy is right here with you and you will be fine, why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll go find a friend.”
    This seems to give language that is applicable whether you know if the situation is appropriate for your child or not. It’s easier said than done when you are actually in the moment, but I find that when I do use these words, I don’t dig a hole I can’t climb out of once I have time to actually process whether or not my expectations met her ability to deal with things.

  • Ang

    November 14, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    As an oldest child I hated that the expectations my parents had for me were so much higher than those for my younger brother; despite that experience I still expect too much from my oldest. It became glaringly clear when my second was born, and I stress much less about parenting her than I do my first. (And I must admit, I stress more about how their behavior reflects on me than I do about the behavior itself.)
    Unfortunately, even though I recognize that my expectations are too high, that doesn’t make them automatically adjust. It is still a struggle, and I often don’t realize how ridiculous my expectations for my oldest were until my second comes to that age herself. I am expecting that my third will likely get the most rational mommy, and I struggle to keep myself in check with my oldest in the hopes of having a better relationship with her than I do with my own mother.

  • Fairly Odd Mother

    November 16, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    Our ‘big’ expectations start early—why else would parents pay $10k+ for preschool! Also, I’ve tried to force myself to believe that kids achieve things at different times. When my son didn’t walk until 16 mos old, I was pretty calm about it all. But, when my 7yo wasn’t able to read a chapter book? Yeah, I haven’t handled that so well. I think that our anxiety over their “failure” to hit developmental or academic milestones when we think they should does a lot of damage to their confidence.

  • Vikki

    November 17, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    I am so guilty of this. I play this little game that is like six degrees of separation for neurotic parents. My child will do something and, in 6 steps or less, I can tell you how and why he’ll end up in prison. Good times!

  • Rita Arens

    December 3, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I’m clearly a few weeks behind, but still wanted to comment. I think the number one reason it’s so hard NOT to fret about milestones and what our kids’ friends are doing is that everyone is constantly telling us our kids are too needy, too whiny, too quiet, too whatever. I’m almost wondering whether taking some of the focus OFF the kids, in every way, would take the pressure off them as kids and us as their parents.

  • Rob

    August 12, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    I have a 14 year old son. My son’s awareness, attention, social skills and confidence is very low and of concern to me. He seems to give up easily on certain things. Me and my wife have tried giving ideas to motivate and give more freedom as well as encouragement to improve but seems like it works short term and then goes back to his old self. I don’t demand much other than to see him make an effort. I always tell my 2 kids and this is the truth, i’d rather see them get a C- grade and work hard for it than get an A+ because it was so easy. The hard work and the perseverance seems to be an issue. Am I asking to too much of an expectation for my son or is this something that everyone has experienced and maybe some advise on how to deal with it. I am very much stressed to a point depressed on what I am seeing.