Well with Christmas around the corner, doubtless many children’s expectations will be running high. They might hide the fact that they have expectations, but with the prepped Christmas lists, visits to Santa, talk about what they would like for Christmas undoubtedly they will have somewhere, somehow set some expectations about what might be under the Christmas tree and to that end many parents feel the need to desperately rise to those expectations so their children aren’t disappointed.
But there’s the thing. Disappointment – the one word that no parent ever wants for their children, and however, inevitable it is in life (sorry, but we all know some disappointment is inevitable) we desperately want to shelter our offspring. But disappointment comes on the back of expectations and whilst that may be one thing at Christmas, in life as a whole children everywhere are living under the umbrella of expectancy for better or for worse.
Personally, I don’t like the word “expectation”. Everyone will tell you it’s the cornerstone of good parenting – set expectations that are appropriate; not too high – not too low etc etc. But if the other side to the coin of expectation is disappointment aren’t we playing in a minefield of risk and potential mayhem? And of course, the answer is yes. But there again, maybe, you say life is about risk. Well yes it is, calculated risk and therefore a new approach to what we expect of our children, particularly as they hit adolescence and beyond, needs to come into the frame.
Recently I read that there are two types of expectation that we should never have for our children. The first was expectations surrounding ability and the second, those surrounding outcome. And the reasons put forward were valid and interesting in the same breath. For instance, if we expect a child to get A’s on the back of their ability, the message that goes to that child is that they are smart, or clever. The message that also goes out to them, particularly if they don’t achieve that A, is that “if you don’t get an A, then you’re stupid”. So life takes its course and the child in question gets a B or even a C – there might be a million and one reasons why they get that grade instead of the A (that had been stated was expected) but the perception then received by the child is that they aren’t smart and that in turn impacts on self esteem and belief in their own ability for the future.
Similarly, outcome expectations, can have costly outcomes. The parent that says “you’re bound to win, you’re the best” is setting the bar high. The expectation is that their child will win. What happens if they don’t? What happens if, perish the thought, they come second, or third or fourth or even not ranked? Again the other side to that coin is disappointment and blame. And so expectations can be problematic in their own right.
Years ago, when my own children were an awful lot younger, I remember receiving a letter from school, that was full of expectations. They expected this and they expected that. They were pleased that the students had risen to their expectations and so on and so forth. But the one thing that struck me, and has since, is how these expectations were about the school’s wishes. The school is not alone – many parents do the same thing all over the country and the world. They set the expectation and the child is expected to attain it or measure up against it. But how much more effective would it be, if that strategy focussed intrinsically on what the child wanted to achieve. The expectations would then manifest into aspirations – even goals with a planned strategy for achieving their goals and a focus on the process involved in getting there.
So for instance, a child will think about what they want to achieve. It could be an academic indicator at school but it could also be a change in behaviour, more friends, healthier living, joining a club, completing a challenge etc. Whatever it is, and this pretty much can apply across the board, they get gripped by the challenge they set themselves and aspire to achieve that goal.
Goal setting and aspirations are so much more effective because it puts the child in the driving seat. They OWN their own goals. They aren’t churned out by a computer or rationalised by some well meaning adult, but they are personal and innate to the child’s desire to accomplish something. Critically though setting goals realises that there is a process involved. How exactly is this goal going to be executed and as anyone knows who has set goals and achieved them, the journey is as, if not more important, than the destination. Often it might be that the goal is tweaked en route. That isn’t to say that there is a scapegoat route out of persevering and being dedicated in achieving the said goal, but more so a evaluative process that judges if the initial goal was realistic. To this end, the child then learns about commitment, dedication, purpose, focus, motivation and achievement.
Now how much more is achieved by that, rather than an adult spouting forth about their expectations? That doesn’t mean that you might never expect your children to tidy their rooms again, but it does mean that, hopefully in light of this, you might not be surprised (or shall we say be disappointed) when they don’t! It also means that if children are taught about expectations from early on and appreciate exactly what weight they carry or not, they just might not be so disappointed when Granny buys them another nice warm winter socks for Christmas when they desperately had hoped for the latest chart topping video game.
So as parents, educators and community leaders, with a new year around the corner, and with it resolutions for a better twelve months ahead, let’s pick up the gauntlet to encourage our children to have aspirations and goals in life that put them in the driving seat and maybe leave our expectations on the back seat.