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How do Parental Expectations Affect Kids?

Your tween rolls her eyes at most of what you say, and you wonder, "Is she even listening to me?" The truth is, kids value their parents' opinions above all others, even when they seem disinterested. The expectations you have for your kids send a powerful message that you care and believe in them.

Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist from Katonah, N.Y., says, "To children, parents are their superheroes. Children look to parents to learn about the world around them. When it comes to expectations, children are truly a reflection of their parents."

Relationships and Behavior

A child who is emotionally bonded to a loving, nurturing parent naturally wants to please that parent. Of course, you don't want to manipulate your child, but understanding this tendency cuts down on a lot of work for parents.

Deb Moberly, Ph.D., a St. Louis-based early childhood development expert and founder of the educational consulting service Children 1st, says, "The bonding and attachment between a child and parent continues throughout a child's life, but it can change some in intensity and behaviors throughout the years. Because of the parent/child relationship, a child is extremely sensitive to what pleases his or her parent. This relationship is a 'key' to a child's positive behaviors, and it can serve to motivate a child into other behaviors, including participation in an activity such as a sport. A parent communicates desires or reinforcement verbally and nonverbally, until a child knows exactly what his or her parent would want. This can be a motivating influence."

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We live in a competitive society, so it's no surprise that parents feel pressure for kids to excel and compete. Yet the quest for perfection usually fails. Dr. John Duffy, a Chicago area clinical psychologist and author of "The Available Parent," advises that "Expectations should be high but reasonable. Many parents seem to expect their children to be perfect, but there is a lot of anxiety, and very little satisfaction, in this set-up."

Instead, watch kids closely so you have a realistic view of their potential and strengths. Then, encourage kids to give their very best effort. Duffy says, "Too often, parental expectations are based in achievement as opposed to effort." Try to live life in the moment. Read books, visit museums, and take classes together because you enjoy learning, rather than focusing on grades. Throw a ball around for the joy of it, not because you want to mold the next NFL superstar.

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Although unrealistic expectations can be harmful, setting your sights too low can put a dent in children's self-esteem. The trick is finding a healthy balance in the middle and talking with kids about their goals for themselves.

Duffy says, "I've worked with parents who have dropped their expectations. One dad I worked with suggested to his daughter that she aim a little lower in terms of the tier of college she hoped to attend. His intention was to decrease her level of stress. But his daughter was devastated. She felt as if her father had lost all faith in her, and her grades did begin to reflect this difficulty. So I always encourage parents to expect a lot from their kids, as children like to know their parents believe they are capable of a lot."


Learning to set realistic, achievable goals is one of the secrets to a happy, successful life. Your goal as a parent is not to control or dictate your child's goals, but to guide him in learning to set goals himself. One way to do this is by setting goals together during childhood.

"I find that my expectations for children need to be guided by a concept called the 'growing edge,' says Amy Maschue, a speech-language pathologist and mom of 6. "Regardless of where a child's current developmental level is, when a parent sets his or her expectations in line with the skill just above the child's current level, the child is highly likely to quite quickly achieve that developmental skill and experience the self-esteem-building response of praise and pride from his or her parent."

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