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What Do Your Expectations Communicate to Your Children?

Your expectations influence your children's sense of competence and self-esteem.

Setting expectations for your children is an essential responsibility of parenting. Expectations communicate messages to your children about what’s important to you and establish a standard toward which your children can strive. But expectations can be double-edged swords. They can be a tremendous benefit to your children’s development or they can be weighty burdens that crush their self-esteem, depending on what types of expectations you set for them.

Unhealthy Expectations of Competence

There are two types of expectations that you shouldn’t set for your children: ability and outcome expectations. Ability expectations are those in which children get the message that you expect them to achieve a certain result because of their natural ability, “We expect you to get straight A’s because you’re so smart,” or “We expect you to win because you’re the best athlete out there.” The problem with these messages is that children have no control over their ability. Children are born with a certain amount of ability and all they can do is maximize whatever ability they are given. The fact is that if your children aren’t meeting your ability expectations, you have no one to blame but yourself—you didn’t give them good enough genes! Plus, your children have no control over their ability, so it is pointless to even talk about it. Another problem with ability expectations is that if children attribute their successes to their ability—“I got an A because I’m so smart,”—they must attribute their failures to their lack of ability—“I got a D because I’m stupid.”

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Our culture also conveys the message that results matter above all else. As a consequence, parents often set outcome expectations in which the message is that their children must produce a certain result—“We expect you to win this game” or “We know you’ll be the soloist in your dance school performance” if they want to be seen as competent. The problem is that, once again, children are asked to meet an expectation over which they may not have control. They might perform to the best of their ability but still not meet their parents' outcome expectations because other children just happened to do better than they did. So they would have to consider themselves as incompetent despite their good performance. Setting outcome expectations also communicates the  bigger message to your children that you value results over everything else, so they’ll come to judge themselves by the same standards. Contrary to what you may believe, ability and outcome expectations actually hinder your children’s development of competence.

But Results Do Matter!

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! I can’t push my kids to get good grades or do their best in school, sports, and other activities? No way I’m buying this one.” Before you jump all over me, give me some latitude to bring all these ideas back to the real world.

Here is a simple reality that we all recognize in our culture: results matter! No two ways about it, in most parts of our society, the message that children get is that their competence is judged on the results they produce: grades, victories, test scores, rankings. Though it would be great if children were rewarded for their good intentions or efforts, that is not the way the world works. Unfortunately, this societal message can cause parents to place their desire for their children to get results in the short run ahead of their long-term development, the result of which is interference rather than encouragement in their children's growth.

I would recommend that you give up outcome expectations all together, but still give your children outcome “somethings.” Those somethings I refer to are outcome goals. Goals are very different from expectations. Outcome expectations are often set by parents and placed in front of their children without their consultation or “buy in.” There is almost always an implied threat with outcome expectations: "If you don’t live up to our expectations, we won't love you." And kids often feel dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—toward those expectations. Children have no ownership of expectations and little motivation, outside of that implied threat from their parents, to fulfill the expectations. When I ask children about expectations, they usually grimace and send a very clear message, “They’re telling me what to do and I better do it or I’ll get into trouble.” Not exactly “feel-good” parenting! The message of outcome expectations are also black and white; your children either meet the expectation and succeed or they don’t and they fail. So there is very little opportunity for success and lots of room for failure.

Goals are very different. One of the great joys in life is to set a goal, work toward a goal, and achieve a goal. Children have ownership of their goals and want to set and strive toward goals for themselves, with guidance from parents, teachers, and coaches. For example, “My goal is to get straight As this semester.” One great thing about goals is that they aren’t black and white, but about degree of attainment. Not every goal can be achieved, but there will almost always be improvement toward a goal and that progress defines success. So, if children give their best effort, there is little chance of failure and great opportunity for success. When I ask kids about goals, they convey a very different message. Their faces perk up and they say things like, “It means I decide to do something and I want to really work hard to do it.”

For example, a child’s parents established an outcome expectation of raising her math grade from an 80 to a 92 during the school year. If she only improved her grade to an 89, then she would have failed to meet the outcome expectation. But if she set an outcome goal of a 92, even though that goal wasn’t fully realized, she would still see the 89 as a success because of the her substantial improvement she made over her previous grade. When you send messages of goals rather than expectations to your children, you foster rather than inhibit their sense of competence.

But even outcome goals aren’t ideal. Many parents think that focusing on the outcome will increase the chances of that outcome occurring, but the opposite is actually true. Here’s why. When does the outcome of a performance occur (e.g., in an exam or a sports competition)? At the end, of course. And if children are focusing on the end of the performance, what are they not focusing on? Well, the process, obviously. Here’s the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, your children will more likely perform better and, if they perform better, they’re more likely to achieve the outcome you wanted in the first place. Also, why do children get nervous before a test, sporting event, or recital? Because they’re afraid of the outcome, more specifically, they’re afraid of failure. So by getting them focused on the outcome, they’re going to get nervous and, as a result, will be less likely to perform well and achieve the outcome you wanted for them.

So if you’re going to send messages about outcome somethings, make sure they are outcome goals, but then immediately send other messages that encourage your children to focus on the process, that is, what they need to do to demonstrate their competence and achieve the outcome goals.

Effort Expectations

If you want your children to develop that essential sense of competence, you should communicate messages about effort expectations, over which they have control and that actually encourage them to do what it takes to achieve the outcomes you want. These expectations are also within your children’s control. If your children feel that they have the tools to feel competent, they are much more likely to embrace and pursue their goals. Think about what your children need to do to gain competence and create effort expectations that will lead to that competence: commitment, positive attitude, hard work, discipline, patience, focus, persistence, perseverance. “Our family expects you to give your best effort” or “Our family expects you to make your studies a priority.”.

Notice that I use "our family" instead of "we your parents." This subtle change in language communicates several important messages. It removes the source of the message being the parent, focuses it on the children, and establishes the message as a collaboration between you and them. This cooperative messaging ensures that your children, as a member of the family, have ownership of the expectations rather than feeling that you have forced the expectations on them.

If your children meet your effort expectations, they will, in all likelihood, gain competence and experience the intrinsic rewards garnered from their efforts. If your children don’t meet the effort expectations, they won't experience that sense of competence and will also be disappointed (they should be). But rather than being crushed by the failure, they will know that they have the power to fulfill the expectations and gain competence in the future.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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