Setting Appropriately High Expectations for Children

Father and son talking about expectations
Hero Images / Getty Images

The debate rages among parents and child behavioral experts. Should parents set high expectations for their children and then run the risk of their being depressed and discouraged when they fail? Or should parents avoid setting high expectations for their children and help them feel successful?

A recent study at the Harvard Family Research Project suggests that high expectations in school lead to high performance.

In the digest of this study, we read:

Parent involvement should not be viewed and defined in too narrow terms, such as direct involvement in homework completion, because the increasingly complex demands of the high school curriculum would prohibit many parents from being involved in that way. However, findings reported in this digest indicate a strong form of parent involvement is expectations. Parents who hold high expectations for their teens, communicate them clearly and encourage their adolescents to work hard in order to attain them, can make a difference in students' success.

It has become clear to me from my own childhood and from raising my five children that high but realistic expectations are essential to raising successful children. Parents who set expectations usually see their children rise to their level of expectation. So setting the standards at high but achievable levels will cause children to step up even further.

We have a friend who was raised in a very dysfunctional home. Dad was an addict and Mom was an enabler. As I talked with my friend about his growing up years, his comment was telling. "We were raised exactly as our parents intended. They never amounted to anything, and neither did we." As I probed further, he said, "They fully expected us to bomb out in school, so D's and F's were acceptable.

We were evicted from one house to another and went from one school to another. We did exactly what we were expected to do."

This friend found that he had a gift for athletics, and had a coach in middle school that inspired him to seek for something better. What he learned from this coach, and other responsible adults thereafter, was that he could rise to the level of his expectation. If the coach thought he could run faster than his competitors, he learned that he could. Low expectations, low performance. High expectations, high performance, in sports and in life.

So, if we believe in high expectations, how can we set them appropriately so our children rise to the level of their expectations but don't end up discouraged when they don't quite reach that level?

High expectations move children forward, even if they don't always succeed. Children with parents who have high expectations tend to strive to reach them. Whether with grades in school, with participation in scouting or other activities, or in sports, the very act of striving for a high expectation brings about progress.

Think about weight training. The key to being able to increase upper body strength is to set a high goal, establish milestones along the way and then to move there steadily. Bench pressing a bit more than you think you can, or than you did a couple of days ago, helps you become a better weight lifter. Even if you can't reach your goal to compete in a Mr. Universe competition, you are better for the effort.

Be clear in describing expectations. As I was growing up, I found that I had an aptitude for science, particularly biology. I was fascinated by living things. My parents expected that I would be a doctor or a molecular biologist or something like that. Later on, I thought that my parents were disappointed when I chose public administration as my primary career field. Years later, as I talked with my mom and dad, I found out that their expectations were really about my being in a career field that intrigued me, and not at all about biology. So, to avoid these kinds of issues, we have to be clear about our expectations.

Shoot for long term but focus on short term. If our expectations for our children are related to a college education, it is good to talk about it regularly. But if we neglect this week's quiz in history, we send the wrong message to our children. Helping them study for the history quiz is an important part of setting the expectation about college.

Recognize successes. When those small steps happen well (like an A on the history quiz), it is important to celebrate the victories. If our expectations are about being a great baseball player, take time to give high fives or go out for treats when your son turns the double play in Little League. When the kids make progress toward their high expectations, let them know you are pleased.

Learn from setbacks. I had an occasion in life a number of years ago where I had a huge personal failure. I knew that I had potential to do something great, and I failed miserably. And while some of the doors I thought would be opened to me are now closed, I learned how to move forward in a different direction and once again set my sights high. We can teach our children the same lesson as we help them address the setbacks and the failures. Handling them in a positive light by seeing how we can learn from the mistake and not make it again will give them a critical skill to get through life.


Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Be willing to adjust to changing circumstances. Sometimes, what start out as realistic expectations become unrealistic. Things change along the way. Perhaps an expectation to win a tournament becomes impossible due to an injury. Maybe bombing one test early in a semester makes an A all but impossible. When these kinds of things occur, be willing to adjust the expectation to one that is achievable with effort. Holding doggedly to an expectation when circumstances change is a formula for continual disappointment.

As we help our children learn how to be successful, high but realistic expectations are an important tool. Setting high expectations for our children and helping them learn how to achieve success is a skill all fathers need.