Fred Peipman Ph.D.

Parenting Across the Gap

Set Clear Expectations (Then Secretly Lower Them)

Understanding our parental expectations can be a challenge.

Posted Aug 07, 2014


I am reminded of a joke I heard from a colleague:A doctor was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter. On the way to preschool, the girl picked up her mother's stethoscope, which had been on the seat of the car. Delighted, and brimming with hopes and expectations, the mother thought, "Oh, how sweet, she wants to be just like me!" Then the little girl spoke into the stethoscope, saying, "Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order?"

There are two sets of expectations parents often are dealing with: one is the internal set of expectations that parents have about their children; and the second has to do with external ones that teenagers, in theory at least, should know and understand.

Rarely have I encountered parents with infants or small children, who talk about the possibility of their child becoming anything but their positive expectations (and I have never heard a parent speculate about a child becoming a criminal or an addict).  Instead, harnessing the powers of positive illusions, parents hope, dream, and fantasize about a child becoming something of a success in this world. It is important to be aware of one’s own expectations for one’s child, be they unspoken or not.

Try this exercise: write a list of the hopes you had for your child before adolescence, and a list of your hopes now. Then mark each item on the list indicating whether you have clearly shared this with your adolescent or whether it is an internal expectation.  If your child is younger, or you are planning on starting a family, note your expectations before and after (the time period in-between is less important, but should be at least a year).

Sharing Expectations

Working on sharing those internal expectations through direct verbal communication is essential, because, even if you do not share them, teens pick up on them. When children try to interpret the expectations and hopes of their parents, they inevitably add their own ideas and try to guess at what will please (or upset) the parental unit.

Be aware of expectations colliding with reality. Flexibility is a key concept to remember. We need to establish, take responsibility for, and be willing to reset our own expectations.

It is also tremendously important for parents to be aware of the, perhaps subconscious, desire to fulfill their own dreams and hopes through their children. This happens by chance at times, but, if parents are living through their children, it is not something that leads to promising results and healthy relationships.

Share, Don’t Impose

Share your expectations for behaviors, rules, values, and morals with your children. I say ‘share’ rather than ‘impose’, because we want to model these behaviors.  Rarely does a teenager, (or anyone for that matter),  like to be lectured to or told what to do. Let teenagers know that we expect them to adhere to the behaviors and not reject them completely. By sharing and inviting dialogue about expectations, we are able to be clear about which behaviors are, and are not, acceptable with teenagers.

Establishing expectations ahead of time can help prevent conflict. When a clear rule has been established and then broken, there is no need for argument. The expectation was set up in advance, discussed and consequences established. 

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