Jul 22 / Laura Schneider, LMHC

Parenting | Great Expectations

Expectations are the active state of expecting or looking forward to, and boy, doesn’t that fit the parenting bill! Before we even have children, we dream of moments like holding our cooing baby or throwing the football around or having talks deep into the night or feeling proud when our child wins the spelling bee. Maybe those expectations help us procreate, because sometimes the reality is different than our expectations. 

Expectations are neither good nor bad. They are more realistic and supportive, or unrealistic and unsupportive. We can form expectations because of consistent behaviors we come to rely on, like a child checking in every day after school. And we can agree on expectations through agreements we’ve made in relationships, like a child doing homework before gaming time. The challenge with parenting expectations is that we can imagine them way before we know our child and before they have the maturity to consent—so the expectations are imposed.

Obviously we have to have some expectations of our children so we can help direct and influence their growth. We’ve been a part of the world for a while, and they haven’t. It’s our job to prepare them for independence and self-sufficiency. So we do expect them to walk and talk. We expect them to listen and follow directions. We expect them to try hard and commit. And for lots of children these expectations are relatively easy. They might get off track now and then, but for the most part they meet the standards set by their parents. Those basic expectations, in fact, do help them grow and learn.¹

Parents' high expectations of children’s early childhood education, for example, seems to increase children’s performance and solidify the child’s self-perception of academic competence as they get older.² Parents who have low expectations of children’s academic education impact their children’s early performance and self-perception. This difference is commonly based on parent’s income and past school experience. So parent expectations have an impact on at least school performance.

Of course academic success isn’t everything. In fact, when parents value education over all else, the result is less glowing. “Class comparisons showed a consistent pattern of healthier child functioning, including higher school performance, higher self-esteem, and lower psychological symptoms, in association with low to neutral parental achievement emphasis, whereas poorer child functioning was associated with high parental achievement emphasis.”³ Parents who have too high of expectations, or attach love to meeting those expectations, create problems for their children.

As a counselor, it is difficult to convince parents that their expectations (academic and otherwise) are too high. They have relied on those expectations, maybe experienced and thrived under those same expectations when they were growing up, and don’t see any other way to ensure that their children succeed. Part of the challenge is our overemphasis on performance-based qualities. Again, and as I have said to so many parents, academics are super important. Certainly children who get college degrees make more money and money can lead to less stress.4 But parents who over-expect can counter the positives and stress out their children to the point where they can’t learn or perform.5 When working with these children, it seemed the only way they could communicate their distress was with some form of crisis or self-harming behavior. 

Of course it’s not only academic stress. It’s other performance-based stressors— extracurricular activities, like sports and music. There is a certain pressure in many communities that children need to go, go, go. Their activities take precedence over family time, free time, and social time. The result, once again, can be stressed-out children whose performance is diminished due to the over-scheduling and high expectations.6

I worked for most of my career in the middle to upper-middle class neighborhoods of Seattle’s eastside suburbs. I didn’t start there. My first experiences were with a wide economic range of families all over the Seattle area. One family was scraping to pay their heating bil,l and another adding an extension on their million-dollar house. Expectations and crises varied widely, and my assistance was based on their fundamental needs. But one thing I kept in mind in each case was that children need to feel safe, loved, and valued. Happiness is built on connection and resiliency. Some of the most generous and happiest families I met had very little resources, but they engaged and enriched their children’s lives with interaction and clear celebration of the family.

When I had my own children, we owned a home in a middle-class neighborhood with good schools. We didn’t have a lot of money to be sure, but we valued our time with them and enriched their experience in a variety of ways. I was also counseling families in the greater eastside area and would bounce sometimes between financial envy and deep concern for the pressure to perform like a rock star. It was almost like everyone was competing against their neighbors for the most fabulous child. My children weren’t academic, sports, or music rock stars. They were super cool people who were performing at a reasonable level for a reasonable life. I knew my goal was to focus on the happiness quota. Deep relationships, empathy for self and others, emotional awareness, well-tuned regulation, positive narration, high confidence, and mastery of certain life-skills. It became my focus in counseling children and families as well.

Depending on our family, culture, community, and economic impact, we value different aspects of what it means to be a successful adult—and in so many ways, we reverse-engineer those values when raising children. When it feels like we are competing with every other parent out there to create a space for our children to succeed, we can get caught up in the performance-based aspects of skill, talent, and results. What we need to remember is that reasonable academic expectations, balanced by focus on values like kindness and friendship, help your child’s self-esteem and performance. Getting that balance right is key. Expectations create stress, which at a moderate amount can propel a child forward. Too much, and children are riddled with stress and perform less capably. Making our children’s social, life, and emotional skills as important as these other skills promotes long term happiness and success.

Take Care,
Laura Schneider, LMHC




Works Cited

¹ Lazarides, Rebecca, et al. “The Role of Parental Expectations and Students' Motivational Profiles for Educational Aspirations.” Learning and Individual Differences, JAI, 30 Aug. 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1041608016301686.
² Loughlin-Presnal, John, and Karen L Bierman. “How Do Parent Expectations Promote Child Academic Achievement in Early Elementary School? A Test of Three Mediators.” Developmental Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5565683/.
³ Ciciolla, Lucia, et al. “When Mothers and Fathers Are Seen as Disproportionately Valuing Achievements: Implications for Adjustment among Upper Middle Class Youth.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5389911/.
4 Kokemuller, Neil. “Wage Differences for High School vs. Bachelor's Degree.” The Classroom | Empowering Students in Their College Journey, 5 Nov. 2021, https://www.theclassroom.com/wage-differences-high-school-vs-bachelors-degree-1452.html.
5 Nania, Rachel. “More Kids Plagued with Chronic Stress: Why It's Happening, How to Help.” WTOP News, 22 Feb. 2018, https://wtop.com/parenting/2018/02/more-kids-plagued-with-chronic-stress-why-its-happening-how-to-help/. 6 Group, Taylor & Francis. “Are Your Children Overdoing It? Too Many Extracurricular Activities Can Do More Harm than Good.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 14 May 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180514122423.htm.