Tag Archives: expectations

Failing to Meet Your Own Expectations

Before we have children of our own, we typically form a lot of expectations about what it would be like to have children, and expectations of what kind of parent we plan to be. When those expectations meet reality, we may need to take time to re-evaluate and re-adjust our own definitions of what it means to be a successful parent.

What did you expect?

Our pre-parenthood expectations may have been unrealistically optimistic, filled with the sorts of happy, active families having lovely outings that you see in all the commercials for medications that will fix all your ills. We may have imagined that we would always love spending time with our children, and that we’d teach them to love the things we love, and that they would achieve things we had not achieved. Even if we saw other people’s children being challenging or difficult, we may have reassured ourselves that our children would be better, because we would be better parents – we believed that if we just did things right, it would all work out.

Within a few days after a baby’s birth, we typically discover that the reality does not meet our expectations. Even if we “do everything right”, our babies still cry and they still spit up all over us. And often we don’t do things right. We make mistakes all the time as we try to manage this new full-time job we weren’t adequately prepared for. Parenting is hard work! And it’s made harder by the contrast between our expectations and our realities. That contrast is a significant predictor of postpartum depression. Parents with very high, even unattainable, expectations are more likely to experience mental health challenges.

For parents of infants and young children, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on what expectations you hold for yourself, and making conscious choices about adjusting those expectations to make them more realistic and compassionate.

What expectations did/do you have that don’t serve you?

Let’s examine some types of thinking that parents may have which are not helpful.

  • To be a good parent, do you need to be happy all the time? Fully functional, with a clean house, healthy home-cooked meals, and festive decorations for holidays?
  • Should you always know exactly what your child needs? Should you always be able to meet all their needs? Always enjoy spending time with your child? Never speak harshly to them?
  • Is your self-worth tied to your achievements or your child’s achievements? Are you afraid that if anything goes wrong, you’ll be blamed? If you’re coming from a successful long-term career, do you expect to be just as successful at your brand new job of parenting?
  • What criteria do you judge yourself on? Should you never make mistakes? Should you do all the things that other parents show themselves doing on social media?

How would you like to adjust those expectations?

If you find yourself often thinking you’re not a good enough parent, maybe it’s worth re-defining what it means to be good enough.

  • Can you assess your own personal values so you can prioritize putting energy into the things that matter most to you, and let go of the high demands in areas that aren’t that important?
  • Can you role model resiliency for your child? We can’t always control whether bad things happen to us, but we can control how we respond. We don’t always get everything we want, but we can find ways to be happy despite that.
  • What do you want you child to remember from this time? Do things have to be perfect to make good memories?
  • Can you embrace messy moments when things go badly as learning opportunities? Can you remind yourself often that not everything will go as planned, and it’s OK to make the next best choice?
  • Can you admit that sometimes you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and that it’s OK to ask for support? OK to take breaks? OK to prioritize self-care?
  • Can you let go of your not-enough story? Let go of doing things because you think you need to prove your worth, and start believing in your inherent worth.
  • Instead of setting vague goals – “to be a better parent” or unattainable goals – “to never yell at my kids again”, can you set up clear and achievable steps in the right direction?
  • Can you practice self-compassion? I often urge parents to remember the power of the word YET. Instead of thinking your child will never do something, just think “they can’t do it yet.” We can do the same thing for ourselves – we can hold ourselves to high standards AND forgive ourselves for the times we aren’t yet meeting those standards.

I created an exercise you can do to examine your expectations, and to re-frame them into more reasonable, achievable goals. You can do either art or some creative writing of a “job description” in this exercise.

Living Up to Expectations

This post is about living up to expectations. Children… well, all human beings really… are good at doing what’s expected of them. But when the people around a child have limited expectations, they limit the possibilities for that child.

This week on the radio show This American Life, they had an episode called Batman. (Listen to it here. Or read the transcript.) They told the story of Daniel Kish, who has been blind since he was a toddler. The picture shows him – riding a bike. He navigates the world – hikes the woods, rides his bike, walks through cities – using echolocation. He clicks his tongue, and listens to how sound bounces back to determine what objects are nearby. This skill allows him to easily move about independently, with few limitations.

In the radio show, they interview author Robert Scott, who argues that blindness is a social construct. When we, as a society, have low expectations for what a blind person can accomplish, we limit what they can accomplish. He tells a story of a man who worked at a paint factory, then lost his vision. His co-workers told him: hey, we’d love for you to still work here. Go to an organization that serves the blind and get some training and come back. But the organization basically told him “blind people don’t do that” and offered him placement in a sheltered workshop for the blind. Robert Scott met him years later begging on a street. That’s what many people expect blind people to do.

This radio show was particularly striking to me because I have one leg. Technically, by just about any definition you can come up with, that makes me handicapped. But, I don’t really think of myself that way often. Certainly in my experience, handicaps are a social construct. I suppose I have to adapt things to do them, but truthfully, I rarely notice that I have to do anything differently than other people(other than finding a place to lean my crutches when I sit down). It doesn’t really limit my activities in any notable way. And I don’t see any reason why it should.

And yet… There’s a male amputee who hangs out on the 45th street on-ramp to I-5, asking for money, with his pant leg folded up to reveal his artificial leg and a sign saying he can’t work. There’s another one who hangs out by Bellevue Square. Same fashion choice. Same sign – “can’t work.” Here’s the thing. I seem to always see them as I’m driving to or from my work!

I just can’t understand why they think they can’t work. I have never had a problem finding a job. Now yes, I grasp that I came from a middle class background and went to a good college and grad school, and this helps in the job search. And I get that their job experience might be in fields that are harder to do with one leg. But what I don’t understand is their belief system. What is it that convinces them they can’t work?

Expectations. Handicaps as a social construct.

So how did I miss out on this societal message? I lost my leg to cancer when I was 15. I grew up in a military family in Wyoming which is a culture known for some fierce independence and a sincere desire never to be a burden to others. So, I had that influence going in to the experience. But also, after my amputation, I don’t remember ever really getting the message from anyone that I was now to be considered handicapped and incapable of an independent life. Now, maybe someone thought that about me along the way, but I never noticed if they did. It was just assumed, as far as I knew, that I would get healthy again, go back to high school, go on to college, go on to work, and marriage, and kids – all the same things that had been expected of me when I had two legs. There was no reason to change any of those expectations.

Since I’m a parent educator, and this is a blog about parenting, of course, I come around to thinking: And what lesson is there in all this for parents? And not just parents of kids with physical handicaps, but really for all parents.

Our children live up to our expectations. Maybe not always. Maybe not every day. And maybe not in every precise detail if you’re a person who gets really specific in your expectations… But over the long run, they live up to our big picture expectations.

I can’t just say “I expect my four year old to clean up his toys today” and then have that magically become reality. And I never set for my older ones a really specific expectation, like “I’ll only feel successful as  parent if she goes to Princeton and majors in physics.”

But I can tell you that over 21 years of parenting my eldest and 17 years with my second, that they have, in general lived up to our big picture expectations of them. They’re really good kids, with a strong ethical grounding, compassion for others, commitment to excellence and passion for learning.

We did have the broad expectation that they would do well in school, and go to college, and they have (well, my second child will start college next year…). “Research has shown that parental expectations for children’s academic achievement predict educational outcomes more than do other measures of parental involvement.” [Source]

I do think there’s a fine line with expectations. If we expect more of our kids than they are possibly capable of, and continually let them know that we’re disappointed at their failure to meet those expectations – well, that would be pretty miserable.

But we also don’t want to expect too little.

I confess – my oldest has done an excellent job of convincing us that she’s bad at washing dishes. So, we never ask her to do it. We just do it for her so it gets done “right.” But one does wonder how or when this pattern will ever change….

I think one of the things that limits what we ask of our kids is maybe a bit of parenting fatigue… it’s easier to do the dishes than ask her again to do them, or to show her again what we mean when we say clean…

But sometimes we try not to ask too much of our kids because we want to protect them. We want to protect them from the risk of failure.Yes, I told my children not to expect to be professional class or Olympics class athletes. Because I knew the statistical odds of them becoming that was really small, and I didn’t want them disappointed. But, did I also block any potential of them becoming that? Yeah, I did.

We also often limit our children to protect them from harm. We set limits on our expectations, and thus limits on our children because of a desire to keep them safe.

In the episode of This American Life, Daniel Kish tells this story… When Daniel was in fifth grade, he was a very independent kid – he walked to school, crossing major streets. He made his own breakfast and his own lunch. Then a new blind kid came to school. Adam. He was not independent – couldn’t do much of anything on his own. He had come from a school for the blind where people did everything for him – escorted him everywhere he went, carried his books, tied his shoes, made his lunch, brought it to him – because “blind kids can’t do those things.”

The people around Adam had done all those things for him to help him and to protect him from harm. On the episode, they interview Daniel Norris, who works for the Vermont Association for the Blind. He says that most parents of visually impaired kids have a hard time letting their kids risk trying things that “blind kids don’t do.”

Norris says “You can’t blame mom and dad for struggling and wanting to keep their child safe…They want their child to not suffer. And that’s very noble but holds the kids back.”

I try with my four-year-old to remain aware of developmental capabilities. What are reasonable things to expect of him? I try to expect that. And in the areas where he’s strongest, I stretch my expectations just a bit so he has to stretch just a bit. It’s in that pushing at the edge of his capabilities that he learns. But in the areas where he’s struggling a bit more, I try not to pressure him too much in the moment, while still holding the vision that someday he is going to get stronger in those areas too. In order for him to learn, I have to be willing to let him make mistakes, I have to let him sometimes fail so he learns how to get back up and try again. I have to be willing to let him take risks. I have to expect him to learn, change, grow, make reasonably smart choices, get a few bumps and bruises along the way, but be better for them in the long run. Because he’s likely to live up to those expectations.

On the radio show, host Lulu Miller says “And here’s where we get back to expectations. See, Daniel [Kish] thinks there is nothing amazing about him. He thinks that most blind people who don’t have other disabilities could do things like ride bikes. See, he thinks the reason that more blind people don’t [is] because the expectations that you or I are carrying around in our own heads about what blind people can do are simply way too low. Those expectations, those private thoughts in our heads, are extremely powerful things, because over time, they have the ability to change the blind person we are thinking about.”

If blindness is a social construct, and my “handicap” is a social construct, where else are we handicapping people through our beliefs and expectations… Where are you handicapping your child or other people you encounter?

The Discipline Flow Chart – 6 Easy (or not always-so-easy) Steps of Discipline


When many people hear the word Discipline, they think of punishment – the consequences for bad behavior. Discipline is so much more: it’s Prevention of problems – setting up an environment where your child can be successful. It’s Picking Your Battles – deciding which lessons are the most important to teach. It’s Teaching your child about the right way to behave (not assuming they were born knowing.) It’s Setting Limits – letting your child know when there is a problem and giving them the opportunity to correct it. Then, as step 5, not step 1, come Consequences. After consequences, we Move On – making clear to the child that their behavior was not OK with us, but they are! Let’s look at the 6 steps in more detail.

Step 1 – Prevent Problems

There are lots of things we can do to set the stage for good behavior. It’s easier for your child to behave when they are well-rested and well-fed. It’s easier for your child to behave when you have predictable routines for your day and they know what’s expected of them. We can plan our activities so that each day the child has plenty of kid-friendly times and places where we can say yes to them – yes, it’s OK to run here, yes, it’s OK to be loud here, yes, you can touch and play with all the things here. Having this time will make the “No” times easier.

Effective discipline is grounded in relationship. If your child trusts you, and trusts that you love them, discipline will be easier.

A key step of prevention is to teach your child what to expect, and what is expected of them. It will take them a while to learn what is appropriate behavior for church, stores, the doctor’s office and so on. On your way to an activity, talk about what you will be doing, and how you would like them to behave.

Step 2 – Pick your Battles

When some questionable behavior begins, think before you intervene.

If something is clearly bad behavior, we move on quickly to the other steps… especially if there’s imminent danger of harm to a person or a possession – then we’d jump straight to step 5 – consequences. Or if your child is having a full-out tantrum, you may need to just remove them from the situation and explain later.

But sometimes the ‘misbehavior’ that we notice and react to is really not that big of deal. Sometimes the behavior is just annoying to us but not really bad. (If this is the case, can you just ignore it?) Or sometimes, our kids just surprise us by doing something we didn’t expect them to do and we react negatively before we really think about it. And then next thing we know, we’re caught in a battle of wills about something, and we realize part way through that it’s a battle not worth fighting, but we don’t want to back down because then our child learns that they can out-argue us.

When you encounter one of those moments of “I can’t believe she just did that!”, stop and think before reacting. Share your thought process with your child….  “hmm… I need to think about whether it’s OK to do that.” Once you’ve decided, explain your decision to them so you both know the rules for the future.

[Note: when I say things like “explain”, remember that you always have to act in a developmentally-appropriate way with your child. So, explaining to a toddler may be “no, no, too hot” and an explanation to a 5 year old will be a lot more specific.]

Step 3 – Tell Your Child what TO do

[If the situation is escalating quickly, we might need to jump to step 4 or step 5. But ideally, we can spend a while on step 3… ]

We need to ask for the behavior we want to see. Toddlers don’t understand the word “don’t” very well, so if you say “don’t bite”, they hear the verb, and continue to bite. Also, even if they grasp what they shouldn’t do, they may not be able to think of any alternatives for what they should do instead. Tell them what they should do.

Connect to Correct: Don’t call out suggestions from across the room. Go close to your child, establish eye contact, and then give suggestions. Engage them in the new activity before moving away.

Model: Act the way you would like your child to act. Point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see. “Let’s touch the doggy gently. See, this is gentle.” “Watch how I walk carefully down the stairs, and I get to jump off just the very last stair.”

Re-direct: Tell them what other action they could do with that object. So instead of “don’t pour the rice on the floor”, say “keep the rice in the bowl.” Instead of “Don’t drop that!!” say “Hold it very carefully” and say “when you’re ready to set it down, I’ll take it from you.”

Substitute: Tell them what other object they can do that action with. “I can see you’re in the mood for throwing. Let’s go find a ball.” “I can see you want to bang on things. Where’s your drum?” Sometimes it’s delayed substitution: “I know you want to jump and run today. Later, we’ll go to the playground and you can do that all you want. For now, I need you to sit quietly.”

Offer Choices: “You have 3 cars. Bobby wants to play with one. Which one do you want to give him?”

Note: don’t offer choices to a child who is very upset. It will only make it harder for her to calm herself down. A tantrum-ing child needs to be given clear direction about what to do.

Explain the Reasons: “I want you to stop banging on that, because it might break. That would make us sad.” “I need you to be safe. When you go head first down a slide, it can hurt you. Go feet first.”

Step 4 – Alert Child to the Problem, set Limits

If re-directing has not been working, and misbehavior continues, we need to take action. [If there is imminent risk of harm, jump to step 5.]

Get serious. By this, I mean: change your tone of voice to calm but stern, change your body language. Let them know you mean business. Tell your child that his behavior is not OK. (He might not know. Or he may know and is testing the rule – and you.)

Remind your child what the expectations are and encourage her to behave better. Let her know what the consequences will be if the misbehavior continues.

Try for logical consequences, where ‘the punishment fits the crime.’ The most common consequences fall into two categories: remove the child from the situation until they can behave well, or remove options from the child (i.e. take away toys, buckle them into the high chair, stop them from using the slide.) Make sure the consequence is in proportion to the issue. Some examples: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away for the day” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach.”

Don’t set any consequences you’re not willing to enforce!

Step 5 – Calmly Enforce Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence. Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Your role is to be the authority who helps your child stay safe and grow into the best adult they can be. Although you can be loving and friendly to your child at all times, you can’t always be their friend. Sometimes you’ll be the “bad guy” who blocks them from doing what they want.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just do it.

Step 6 – Moving On

Once the consequence is complete (your child has calmed down enough to return to the situation or the time limit on taking the toys away has run out) then you move on.

Remind your child you still love himhis behavior was the issue. Make plans together for how to prevent or manage this sort of situation in the future.

Over time, we want our children to learn self-discipline, so as they get older, we need to “fade” back a little with our guidance. We ask them to tell us what the appropriate behavior is for a situation, we wait a little longer to correct, we let them experience some of the problems we’ve warned them about (instead of always protecting them from consequences), and take more responsibility for behaving properly.


Would you like a cheat sheet version of this article to print and post on your fridge? Download PDF: Discipline Flow Chart

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If you want to learn more parenting skills, and get expert advice customized to your family, look for parent education classes in your community! I teach for Bellevue College – on the Eastside of Seattle. (For other classes in Puget Sound, look here.)

Positive Discipline: Telling Your Child What TO DO

Many people think of discipline as just limits and consequences, and saying “no” to things the child wants. But a huge part of discipline is saying yes and telling the child what they can do.

We definitely want to set limits with our kids, and we absolutely need to say no sometimes (especially when safety is involved), but if you say no all the time, the word loses its power. If you feel like you spend your whole day saying no, think about ways to say yes. What can you encourage your child to do that will let him burn off energy, try out new skills, explore his world and connect with you?

Ask for the behavior you want to see

It’s important to know that toddlers don’t always understand the word “don’t” very well, so if you say “don’t bite”, they hear the verb in that sentence, and continue to bite.

Also, even if they understand what you don’t want them to do, they might not be able to figure out an alternative on their own for what they could do. So if you just say “don’t pour that on the floor” it doesn’t tell them what to do nearly as effectively as saying “keep the rice in the dish.”

So, when your child is holding something fragile, instead of saying “Don’t drop it!!” say “Hold it very carefully.” Instead of saying “Don’t throw that!” say “when you’re ready to set it down, let me know and I’ll take it from you.” Instead of “Don’t Run”, say “please walk” or “can you tiptoe very slowly?”

Use specific language to explain what you want and why

Instead of just “no”, try “careful”, “gentle”, “soft touch”, “slow feet.” “Hands up, that’s hot.”

“I want you to be safe in the playground. If you lie down on your belly and put your feet down first, that will help keep you safe.” or “I want you to stop banging on that, because it might break and we would have to throw it away. That would make us sad.”

Say what you are seeing and then say what you want to see

“I see you dumping all the toys out of the toy box. I want to see you get out only the things you want to play with. Can I help you find something special?” Or “I see you banging on grandma’s piano with your whole fist. I want to see you playing gently with just one finger.”

Give a bored child something to do

If you’re frustrated when he makes a mess while you’re cooking: give him his own drawer in the kitchen. Fill it with plastic dishes, cups that stack, and pots to bang. Let him play in a sink full of water, or with dried beans for pouring and scooping. Ask for his “help” with what you’re working on.

Create opportunities to say yes

Create spaces where it’s all about yes. Create a play area where everything is age appropriate, where it’s easy for them to keep things tidy…

Have times or activities each day where your child sets the agenda, and gets to play however she wants to, as loud (or quiet) as she wants to.

If not now, then when? If not here, then where?

If they can’t do it now, but it will be ok later, then instead of saying no, you can say “you can have a cookie later, after you eat lunch. first, we’re going to play some more.”

If this is not the time or place for something, tell her when it will be “it’s not OK to climb on the furniture here, but later today we can go to the playground and you can climb there.”

Remove predictable problems

If your child loves to throw, put away the hard plastic toys and metal cars for now. You’ll still work with them on not throwing things that weren’t designed to be thrown, but this lets you avoid injury.

If there’s one environment, or playmate, or circumstance that always brings out the worse in your child, can you avoid it? Or take it on only when your child (and you) are rested, fed, and healthy?

Set your child up to succeed

Schedule: When planning your errands for the day, or when choosing activities for your child, think about the natural rhythm of their day. When are they active and ready for engaging activity? When are they quiet but happy, and content to go along for the ride?

If you need your child to sit still later in the day, can you make sure they get plenty of physical activity early in the day? If your child is always wired up and excited at bedtime, can you adjust the activities to slow down as the end of day nears?

Make sure your child is well fed before taking her into any situation which will be challenging for her.

Predictable routines make everything more manageable. Think about areas where you have discipline challenges. How could you establish a new routine that reinforces the way you want them to behave?

More information:

What to say instead of no: www.regardingbaby.org/2011/11/05/what-to-say-instead-of-no-six-ways-to-gain-your-childs-co-operation/

13 ways to encourage good behavior: www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/13-ways-encourage-toddler-good-behavior

Here is a printable handout on Saying Yes – Telling Your Child What TO DO . Find more handouts on my Resources for Parent Educators page.