One of the challenges of parenting is figuring out when to accept your children as they are, and when to push them to be more. Here are some guidelines and suggestions for how to begin to set healthy expectations for your kids, and for yourself.
1) Learn about child development.
You can save yourself a lot of grief by knowing how broad the range of normal really is. You want to make sure that you’re not expecting 5-year-old skills out of your 3-year-old. Just looking around at other kids and comparing isn’t a helpful way to assess.
Healthy expectations start with educating yourself. Knowing the benchmarks and milestones (behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social) will guide you.
2) If you are seeing developmental lags, talk to your pediatrician and see about having your child formally assessed. If your child is on target, be grateful.
Sometimes parents are obsessed with their children being exceptional. But simply being where you’d expect they’d be at a given age is a beautiful thing, and worthy of appreciation.
If there are lags and your child is under 3, there are many services available for assessment. Over that age, it might be through your health insurance or the school district. Being an informed advocate is crucial.
3) Examine your own underlying motivations and assumptions.
We all want to raise happy, well-adjusted individuals. But based on our own life experiences, we tend to want add-ons. We want our kids to be popular, maybe, or to excel in sports or academia.
Consider where those extras are coming from for you. Perhaps you want your kids to be what you weren’t, or maybe you want them to have what made you happiest. Maybe you’re expecting your child to validate you as a parent, or to represent you in other people’s eyes. Children can’t be the primary source of your fulfillment; if you’re trying to make that happen, then you’ll put too much pressure on yourself and on your children.
Sometimes we internalize ideas from our own families of origin that might not apply to our current life, or to our children. For example, your family might have taught you that academic success is essential for a healthy, productive life. That would then make it incredibly difficult for you to accept a child with learning disabilities, or one whose talents are less suited for academia (for example, a child who might want to work with their hands.)
4) Identify your child’s strengths and difficulties. Alternate between them as areas of focus.
You don’t always want to point out deficits; you can’t always praise them. You want to find a healthy balance that leads to honest self-assessment. Eventually, you won’t be there to set the expectations, and your child will need to do it on their own. Model how to do this.
Notice how your child is experiencing you. As an ally and source of support, or as a taskmaster? Have open dialogue about how they see you, what you’re trying to do as a parent, and how you’re doing it. Let them evaluate you. Take their feedback seriously.
5) Distinguish between effort and outcome.
Praise your kids for the effort expended, rather than the outcome achieved. If you’re overly focused on the results, they will be, too. That puts them under more stress and at greater risk for mental health problems.
Let’s face it, sometimes kids are going to fail, regardless of how hard they tried. But it’s better to reward them for trying at something where they didn’t do well than to overly focus on their success in an area that didn’t require much work.
Self-esteem–the sense of authentic worth, mastery, and competence–is built through struggle, and that takes effort.