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Parenting: Expectations of Success: Benefit or Burden

Do your expectations help or hurt your child?

Setting expectations for your children is an essential responsibility of parenting. Expectations tell children 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 crushing burdens that hamper their growth, depending on what types of expectations you set for them. Unfortunately, the culture of success that permeates popular culture has convinced many parents to set the wrong kind of expectations for their children.

Unhealthy Expectations of Success

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 are expected 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 ability expectations 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. Another problem with ability expectations is that if children attribute their successes to their ability-"I won because I'm so talented"-they must attribute their failures to their lack of ability-"I'm failed because I'm stupid." And you can't change stupid!

Popular culture also emphasizes results over all else. As a consequence, parents often set outcome expectations in which their children are expected to produce a certain outcome-"We expect you to win this game" or "We know you'll be the first-chair violin in the orchestra." 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 your outcome expectations because another child just happened to do better than they did. So they would have to consider themselves as having failed despite their good performance. Setting outcome expectations also communicates 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 achievement efforts.

Results 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, people are judged on the results they produce: grades, sales, victories, earnings. Though it would be great if everyone got paid for their good intentions or efforts, that is not the way the world works. Unfortunately, this societal focus can cause you as parents to place your desire for your children to succeed-as defined by popular culture-ahead of doing the right thing for your children.

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," and kids often feel dragged-sometimes kicking and screaming-toward those expectations. Children have no ownership of the expectation and little motivation, outside an implied threat from their parents, to fulfill the expectations. When I ask children about expectations, they usually grimace and say things like, "That's when my parents get really serious and I know they're gonna put pressure on me" or "They're telling me what to do and I better do it or I'll get into trouble." Not exactly "feel-good" parenting! 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. I believe that children are wired to respond to goals. One of the great joys in life is to set a goal, work toward a goal, and achieve a goal. Children want to set goals for themselves, with guidance from parents, teachers, and coaches, and they want to pursue those goals. And goals aren't black and white, but about degree of attainment. Not every goal is 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 respond much differently. Their faces perk up and they say things like, "It means I decide to do something and I really work hard to do it" or "I feel like my parents are really behind me and I'm psyched to do it."

For example, a child's parents established an outcome expectation of raising her math grade from an 80 to a 95 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, even though the goal of a 95 wasn't fully realized, she would still see the 89 as a success-as well she should.

Many parents believe that results at a young age are important, so they emphasize results and place outcome expectations on their children. Yet childhood is about learning, improving, developing, and gaining the values, attitudes, and skills necessary for later success. Using goals rather than expectations is one of the best ways to foster this growth.

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 less likely to perform well and achieve the outcome you wanted for them.
So if you're going to set outcome somethings, set outcome goals, but then immediately direct your children's focus onto the process, that is, what they need to do to achieve the desired outcome.

Effort Expectations

If you want your children to be successful, instead of setting ability and outcome expectations, you should establish 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 achieve their goals, they are much more likely to embrace and pursue them. Think about what your children need to do to become successful and create effort expectations that will lead to their success: commitment, hard work, discipline, patience, focus, persistence, perseverance, positive attitude. "Our family expects you to give your best effort" or "Our family expects you to make your studies a priority." These expectations are worthwhile whether someone is striving to be a scientist, teacher, professional athlete, writer, musician, spouse, or parent. Regardless of the abilities they inherited from you or with whom they might be compared, children have the capacity to use effort expectations and the tools associated with them to be the best they can be in whatever area they choose to pursue.

Effort expectations should be established in collaboration with your children. This cooperative approach ensures that your children have ownership of the expectations rather than feeling that you have forced the expectations on them. You can talk to your children about the value of effort, how it will help them achieve their goals, and that they have complete control over their effort. You can share examples with your children of how notable people used the skills associated with effort to become successful. Most important, you want to help them make the connection between their efforts and success.

If your children meet your effort expectations, they will, in all likelihood, perform well, achieve some level of success (how successful they become will depend on what abilities they were born with), and gain satisfaction in their efforts. They will also reap the benefits of your approval, good grades, and improved performance in other achievement activities. If your children don't meet the effort expectations, your children may not succeed and must face the consequences, including your disapproval, poor grades, etc. They 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 in the future. Meeting their effort expectations will encourage your children to set even higher effort expectations.