Expectations- Are They Realistic?

Fast-forward 2, 5, or even 20 years.

Graduation caps are flying through the air as celebratory sounds of “Congratulations!” fill the air.

Your beloved child has just graduated from college, a shining moment in your parenting journey.

“Wow, the past 2 decades have been so easy!” you marvel to your friend. “Piece of cake, raising my sweetheart; childrearing is just so incredibly simple!”

{Extended pause for laughter here}

The truth is that nobody ever said that raising children is an easy feat. Far from it- childrearing is one of life’s most monumental tasks- and the baby is delivered without an instruction manual!

Yet some of the inevitable pressures and disappointments that accompany the raising of our small souls can be diminished by adjusting the outlook we have towards our child’s future.

Take a look through the following statements. Is it fair to guess that you agree with the majority of them?

* I would like my child to get good grades in school.

* I’d like to see my child graduate from a prestigious university.

* I would like my child to become financially successful.

* I want my child to marry well and have a happy life.

* I’d like my child to make a difference in the world.

* I want my child to have integrity, compassion, and patience.

We have a whole bunch of wishes up our sleeves, don’t we, parents?!

Let’s take a step back from the admirable list of dreams and study the realism (or lack of thereof) in all of our desires.

No doubt, many of our children will be fortunate enough to achieve all those wonderful dreams, yet, the list begs this question: Was the list compiled based on a parent’s goals- or was there a connection to this particular child’s abilities?

Disappointments and strained relationships can be traced back to one thing- in 99% of all cases: Unrealized expectations.

The reason that most of us can have a wonderful day after realizing that we have just lost the state lottery, whereas many of us would have a disappointing day after our child has gotten into some trouble is because of the expectation factor. We never expected to win the lottery in the first place, so our losing numbers are not a source of frustration. Yet, we did expect our child to behave appropriately at all times, and the youngster’s lack of decorum did not meet our expectation- and resulting disappointment is the mathematical outcome of an unrealized expectation.

As any expert or self-help book will profess, a person’s achievements are based upon his will, drive, and perseverance. Yet, the connection between the will of an individual and his accomplishments must be based on the reality of his abilities- not the reality of his parent’s ardent dreams.

Recently, I heard about a man who had reading trouble as a child, and unfortunately, cannot read properly to this day. “My parents offered me prizes and money so that I would improve my reading skills, however it was like offering me an incentive to grow a foot taller. There was no lack of motivation on my part, there was simply a genuine lack of ability.” (Thankfully, today, there are so many more resources to deal with reading challenges.)

Some parents feel that setting realistic challenges can thwart their child’s growth, because they feel that low expectations and the ensuing low performance can have a negative reflection on them.

Therein lays our greatest challenge- to objectively set realistic goals that are tailored toward our child’s abilities and inclinations- not to our egos. Expectations that are overly high can set a child up for failure, while expectations that are too low can cause a child to stagnate her growth.

After a relatively small expectation has been met, it is generally appropriate to raise the bar and establish a slightly higher challenge. This is also an ideal time to praise and reward the child for her prior accomplishment, thereby motivating the youngster to continue in the desire to achieve more.

The old cliché, “When there’s a will there’s a way” holds truth and promise- as long as we get to know our child and set up realistic expectations.

Wishing all of us much pride and joy resulting from our children’s accomplishments!

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  1. thank you for the many inspiring posts. i’ve been reading them for several months and this is first time i’ve replied. i was especially touched by the reminder that my expectations should be in line with the abilities of my boys.

    i am guardian of six teenage boys in placement at a residential group home. they have many challenging behaviors and conditions (defiance, ADHD, depression, bipolar, substance abuse, OCD, Tourette’s, prenatal exposure to drugs, learning disabilities, early childhood abuse, attachment disorders, etc).

    Even with an understanding of their background, it can be easy for myself and the staff at our group home to set our expectations too high. we want to see them succeessful, and i’m thankful for the reminder that we need to start with small, achieveable goals to build their (already fragile) self-confidence.


  2. I think deep down inside we all want the very best for all our children. Who wouldn’t? I may be over simplifying things as far as what expectations are for our kids. But my prayer and hope is that we have taught our children to go before the Lord and seek His will for their lives. And if they live accordingly their lives will be lived by what the Lord expects. We have to let go and let God show them also. Yet we need to direct them so they can accomplish daily goals- one goal at a time. Doing so will enable them to accomplish the bigger ones later on. A big self confidence booster for sure! Having a son that is AD/HD is trickier to help him achieve goals than it is for our daughter who is very independent and self motivated. There is a fine line and we have to be real careful w/ what we expect of our kids. And how we may come across to our kids as we help them aim for their goals. Good article!

  3. “PEOPLE are always more important than THINGS”
    That quote and belief has been a great base for every area in my life, including parenting! While we strive to be the best Godly example for our children, motivate them, challenge them to be all God has for them, underneath all that,
    their little spirits and self esteem, and the worth they feel as a person, is FAR more important!” After all, Jesus died for the masses, not their accomplishments! 🙂
    Just food for thought!

    p.s. 2 Timothy 3:16,17 Thank God for the Bible. It’s given to us as a roadmap for all areas of life, even parenting 🙂 If we’ll follow the principles in it, I believe it tells us we can be thoroughly furnished for good works, and so can our children! Have a super

  4. This article was great.Parenting is very challenging and rewarding, but we have to keep up our spirits and teach our children the importance of setting goals and reaching them and to be the best that they can be.With the guidance and support from parents and family members.I am a mother of a 6 year old who just statred school in September, it is very challenging we they reach school and having to set goals for them academically and teaching them the inportance if education at a young age. I also have a 3 year old and another on the way. Parents is both challenging and rewarding, but wehen you look into their eyes at the enfd of a busy day it’s all worth the hard work. Keep up the insiprational articles.
    Lori G

  5. I can totally identify with this problem. I have found that my husband’s exectations of our son, who is gifted, just do not seem realistic most of the time. This over expection of what our son’s academic ability is very stressful for both the family and the child. My husband will throw out toys if our son makes what he feels is a “stupid mistake.” Hubby just doesn’t get the concept that no matter how many toys you throw out or threaten to throw out, the child will still make mistakes because he is human and not a computer. He doesn’t understand that there is no need to try and keep up with the other Chinese kids, because a college is not going to look at a student’s academic performance in elementary or middle school. No one really cares that you have an elementary school child who can do algebra, so letting the child move forward at their own pace is more important than rushing them through life. Thank you for the article.

  6. As the mother of three teens, sometimes you do learn to lower the expectations….I think it’s important to remember to make them attainable ones. I found it interesting to read the part about having a bad day if someones gets in trouble as opposed to losing the lottery.I know that’s very true for me and while i may lower certain expectations, the ones that resemble decency and being a good person still rank way high on my list.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with your article about setting realistic goals for our children.However the problem is when spouses see things differently on this issue. my husband has extemely high goals for our children which I have always thought were linked to his ego and now I know this to be true from reading your wise words. How do spouses deal with the ensuing tension when such a situation arises, as this can be equally as damaging to our children as the tough expectations?

  8. I am extremely distressed by the reply from Magpie about her Chinese son being measured against other children. If you can’t get your husband on the reality train, his relationship with his son is in grave danger. Being denied his toys even though he is above average (but he made a mistake)will eventually lead him to overcompensate by spoiling himself as an adult, or overindulging his children in an effort to be as little like his father was as possible. He deserves a childhood, balance is so important! Love the articles, keep up the good work.

  9. I loved the line about how our greatest challenge is to “set realistic goals that are tailored toward our child’s abilities and inclinations-not our egos.” I’m going to tape it to the fridge. While I recognize the wisdom in the words the challenge, of course, will be the application in every day life. I also want learning to be joy-full for my girls and I want their imaginations to rule the day rather then filling their heads to overflowing with facts and then testing them on it. Learning through play and wonder and imagination. I wonder if the “academic” idea for kids drives a lot of the expectations to compete in order to get a better job and college rather then learning self esteem and the joy of being and playing and loving. Kids can be just pushed to learn and become great at Trivial Pursuit and outer facts while their inner landscape of esteem and joy is barren. Maybe the expectations come from a base that is off? Anyway, wonderful food for thought and my brain has had fun munching on it:)

  10. Teacherheart says:

    This post reminds me of one of my favorite writings, “On Children”, by Kahlil Gibran:
    Your children are not your children.
    They are the son’s and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
    You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness,
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

    As a teacher of young souls I have watched children suffer from unrealistic parental expectations. We, parents, are only the archers. We can give our children a strong, flexible, bow from which to fly or we can hinder them with the fear that they may never fly far enough or hit the target with enough accuracy.

  11. Hi there.

    Like one of the earlier posts, I too have read this site for along time without having posted. But this article ties in nicely with an article I have lately gained a lot from. It was published in the New York Times and relates to how we praise our children, setting expectations in them about their innate ability, as opposed to praising them for their effort. Here is the link to the article. http://www.nymag.com/news/features/27840/index.html
    Though I read it with some skepticism at first, because I beleive self esteem to be important for one’s personal development, I have had increasing doubts as to the connection between self esteem and the ability to accomplish. (I am an educator). Self eteem and effort have to be a tandem project. I now have four key phrases (or actions )that I pulled from the article posted on my fridge, because I have a four year old and one year old whom I adore, and want to help them be the best human beings they can. If changing my expectations, and adjusting how I praise, can do that, then I am willing to make a huge effort.

    Anyhow, I hope the artile is useful to you. Happy parenting!

  12. Missy Brooks says:

    My son is fifteen and has fragile x syndrome, which is the number one cause of mental retardation in the world, ahead of downs syndrome. My son does Very well, makes the honor roll most of the time and is in mainstream classes at a public high school. I have a new partner as I am a single mother. He has high expectations for his daughter to go to medical school like his father. He wants my children to use the proper napkin, fork and hang towels neatly. My expectations have been–if the food got into the mouth and not on the face or the floor, I was happy. If my kids got to school on time and tried, I was happy. I am happy my kids to so well, in fact I do push. But I know my expectations and bahaviors have been greatly modified. It was like I had one dream when I was pregnant and each day that I deal with my kids, my dream is modified. I call it Parenting Pragmatically! Namaste

  13. Lesley Hill says:

    Loved the NY Magazine article. My four sons are 19, 16, 14 & 10, and over the years I have learned that my parenting skills and the way I respond to each son’s successes and failures has had to change and adapt depending on which phase of childhood (or early manhood) they are going through. However, this article represents a concept that can be used at every age level. My oldest son is a sophomore in college and still very much looks to me for approval. I kind of regret all those years I constantly told him how smart he was. This study makes so much more sense than all those books I read on parenting back in 1987! Thanks for the link!

  14. Thank you for the reminder that we need to have realistic expectations.

    The tricky part is figuring out what those are for your child. Each child is so different and often times I have found that a child will meet the expectations you have for them if I am consistent and believe in them.

    What I am trying to learn to do is to shepherd my child’s heart and help him see the root of his actions instead of just focusing on the outward signs.

    If anyone has any suggestions or ideas on how to do this Biblically and practically, I would love to hear them. Our son is 2.

  15. Thank you for this article. I’ve been struggling all year with my daughter’s OCD and the school staff. Thank you for the timely information. I don’t feel so alone anymore.

  16. Set realistic goals giving choices and allow your children to be part of the decision making. Ask your children questions. Respect their individuality, compliment and encourage them. All through life take advantage of those precious teachable moments

  17. My daughter’s teacher says that my daughter is ready to be challenged but I am finding it difficult to challenge her without her complaining. How do I challenge my daughter and encourage her to challenge herself without causing her distress?

  18. I try to modify my expectations of my son all the time… trying to remember he is unique and different from my husband and I. But.. (there is always that “but”) I cannot find what does interest him. He has anxiety and always feels persecute and overwhelmed. We have been unable to find a good psychiatric resource here in upstate NY who will thoroughly evaluate him and give us some direction. Does anyone have any good experiences they can relate .. We will travel just about anywhere in NY or northern PA. Thanks. Evelyn

  19. Its a topic which I call “Simply complicated”. Its logical and very simple to say that to set up realistic goals for kids but its very complicated in reality and also very subjective. You dont want to set up the bar too or too high. One cause low self esteem and the other causes failure.

    I think what we need is flexibility, and modifying of goal if we see that it is difficult to achieve. Some times we get too rigid about the goals we set up for our kids and forget that a child’s input is important. As he/she is the one who we are setting this for

  20. Absolutely correct. Great reminder for me. My son is only 2, and so far the expectations I have for him are quite simple, say please and thank you, obey Mommy the first time, etc.

    I am more intimadated by the expectations that will come as he grows older. thank you for the advice.

  21. One of my dearest friends and mentors told me; “praise your children 10 times to every one constructively critical comment”. It has helped us more than you can imagine.

    We homeschool our children. 3 of my children have ADHD, and it is hard sometimes, but I am finding that I learn so much about them. The praise thing works really well. I use the “5 love languages” book as well. You cannot praise a child too much. It just isn’t possible. 😉

    I was reading this article and thinking of how our children arrive to us without instructions, and thought to myself, this is God’s biggest test for us. Whether we adopt, foster, or raise our own, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us through this process.

    I think that is why he sends them without any instructions beyond the scriptures. That is our only manual. We have no specifics about our individual children, we are left to be guided by the Holy Spirit to figure it out. Through prayer and lots of love we will do so.

    Each child has his/her own personal mission. The longer I live, and the older my kids get, oldest is soon moving out…I find that statement to be more and more true. They know what their mission is, just ask them. 😉

    You are all great mothers!



    Visit our homeschool blog, see our nature walks, shark dissections and our Valentine party!

  22. My main goal for my kids is to get them through high school. My 18 yo son is a senior and has struggled in school since he was little. He was diagnosed with ADD in 8th grade and his Adderall XR that he has taken for the last couple years of high school has helped him make it this far. Although, we do have to get his dose upped as needed. Right now, I am just looking towards graduatin in May. Once he has reached that point, I can start to relax. It is a daily struggle for me, as his mom, because I only want the best. I try telling him that I know he is smart, I don’t expect perfection, just him to do his best. I think part of the problem lies in that not all teachers believe that some kids struggle. They want to just work with the good students and just say the others are not applying themselves, that they are lazy, they don’t participate. My son is fairly quiet and is not one to voluteer stuff in class. Never has been. That hurts him, because that is when they think he is not working to his ability so sometimes he just doesn’t. He is going through some stuff right now, and it doesn’t help. I can’t really get into it, but my hopes and dreams for him are to attain his goals. Whatever they may be.

  23. just stopped by to say i really liked your site – you’ve put some work into it!