There is a lot of talk about what children need. Of course, children need to have their physical needs met – housing, clothing, food; but, there is something they need that is just as important. They need to know their parents believe in them. They need to know their parents have high expectations of them.
What does it mean to have high expectations for our children? And why is it so important?
Having high expectations for our children means making sure we expect the best from our children all the time and in all situations. It doesn’t mean demanding perfection – it means not excusing behavior; and it means not expecting failure. Children rise to the expectations their adults have of them.
We communicate our expectations through our words and our actions. Our children are great at seeing and understanding our non-verbal messages and our feelings. They pay more attention to those methods of communication then they do to our verbal communications to them. So if we are telling them we expect them to behave, but then don’t reinforce that with attention, and correction as needed, then they see the lack of interest on our part as a message saying that we don’t really think they can behave. The same holds true for academic performance. If we tell our children they need to do their best in math, but then tell their teacher “Oh, well, she’s always struggled in math,” what we are really telling them is that we expect them to fail in math.
I find that, as parents, many times we create ready-made excuses for our children. Statements such as, “Well, he’s only eight years old.” Or, “At least she tried” oftentimes communicate to the child that the parent was expecting the child to fail. And, many times, the child will parrot it back later. When asked why his chore wasn’t done correctly, “But, Mom, I’m only eight years old.” Or asked why did the child did not pass the spelling test, “But, I tried.” Telling the parent “I did what you expected, I failed.” We do need to make sure that we are praising and building up our children and recognizing their efforts, but making excuses for them is often counterproductive.
This is a tricky balancing act – making sure our verbal communication matches up with our nonverbal communication to our children. It is so very important to do because we all need a champion, someone who encourages us to be our best self. Our world is full of naysayers – people who are more than willing to deride, decry, and depreciate our efforts. Parents shouldn’t be part of this group through words or actions.
As parents, we need to champion and support our children. When a child comes home from school with a bad mark on a test, instead of excusing the test by saying “Oh, that test was too hard anyway,” or “Well, we know you struggle with math,” it would be more productive to sit down with the child and gently go over what the child missed on the test. This communicates that the information on the test is important to understand, and that the child is capable of understanding it. The same holds true for sport skills, or even personal skills – like getting along well with others. This definitely doesn’t communicate that the child needs to be perfect, but it does say that the parents will help the child gain the skills he is struggling with.
By supporting our children, I don’t mean doing everything for them. That’s not supporting them or setting high expectations. In a way, that’s telling them that we don’t think they can do the tasks they need to do.
Our expectations need to be age appropriate, too. But children are capable of a lot of amazing things. By setting our expectations high, we communicate to our children that we trust they can do a good job; that we know they are capable of appropriate behavior; and that we know they will achieve great things.
That kind of message is a message of hope and trust; it is a message of love. Our children learn that their parents know they can face any challenge in life because they have learned how to do it while they were young. What an empowering message! What a partnership of trust and respect!
I’m reminded of a hike my family took a few years ago. We were hiking to the Mount Timpanogos caves. We were hiking with four children under the age of six. On one side of the hike up is a mountain face; on the other is a sheer drop – hundreds of feet down.
Before we started the hike, we told the children what we expected of them. We expected the two oldest to complete the hike by holding on to an adult’s hand the entire time. We expected the third oldest to walk as much as he could, but Daddy would help him when he needed it. The fourth child was an infant, so I would carry her in a sling for the hike. We also told them that we would stop, rest whenever they needed, and share out water and snacks at every rest stop.
Were we setting our expectations too high?
Our children successfully completed the two-mile hike, up to the caves. Then they successfully went through the caves (which was the whole point of the hike) and made it back down the mountain. Our children understood what we expected of them and they rose to the occasion. We had an amazing experience as a family because of their abilities to achieve such great things.
Like the old saying goes, “Shoot for moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” We need to help our children develop this thought about themselves. If we do, then they will soar!