Expectations of kids: Do we set them too high or too low?

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Do parents set the bar of expectations too high or too low? Do we overestimate our children, or are we underestimating them? This is a question that has long been burning in the minds of moms and dads everywhere. Today, we're going to get to the bottom of that question with the help of a recent publication in Psychology Today.

The answer--as it turns out-- isn't so black and white. In fact, the real answer may be far more convoluted and interesting than you may have imagined.

Before we go any further, we need to discuss two divisive factions on the concept: the traditionalists and the developmentalists.

Traditionalists ("doing to" parents), as author and public speaker Alfie Kohn claims, believe that because young children aren't yet able to reason or understand long-term consequences, we need to tell them what to do and employ rewards or punishments to make sure they're properly socialized. In effect, children's developmental limitations are invoked to justify a "doing to" prescription. But the irony here is that many developmental psychologists and educators with a keen understanding of how kids' capabilities change as they grow tend to reject that prescription.


Kohn claims that Developmentalists ("working-with" parents) believe in the notion that no child is too young to be treated with respect. A child's point of view should be taken seriously and his or her choices honored when possible. Sure, the immaturity of young children may require more patience from us. Yes, they may need more protection and monitoring, more structure and instruction. But none of this justifies a reliance on control and a predominant focus on eliciting mindless obedience. "Working-with" parenting and teaching of very young children may be challenging, but it's not unrealistic.

With those two concepts in mind, we can focus on the brass tacks...

To delve deeper into these concepts, we'll first be noting a pair of studies conducted by the University of Texas and New York University, respectively. What these studies confirmed was that parents who “attribute greater competence and responsibility to misbehaving children” are more likely to get upset with them, to condemn and punish them. These parents react angrily when kids act up, display bad behavior, or just downright act like kids their age should.

By contrast, parents who understand children’s developmental limitations tend to prefer “calm explanation and reasoning” in response to the same actions and behavior.

So, as Kohn proposes, are "doing to" parents more likely to overestimate or underestimate their children? As stated earlier, the answer isn't so black and white, and requires a deeper look...


Are we setting the bar too high, or not giving kids enough credit? Find out the facts by clicking next to read on!

To get to the bottom of our expectations of children, we need to look to the educational system. More accurately, Kohn suggests, we must look towards standardized testing. "Most teachers can readily name several students whom they know to be impressive thinkers but who just don't score well on these tests. Press further, and teachers may then think of others in their classes who are great at taking tests but whose proficiency at critical and creative thought is nothing to write home about. Test results therefore overstate the actual capabilities of some kids while understating those of others—probably because tests tend to measure the least important kinds of thinking. Indeed, several studies have found that higher scores on various tests are significantly correlated with shallower approaches to learning."

Another way to analyze our expectations is track how our kids learn math. "On the one hand, children's capacity to invent solutions is routinely minimized by teaching them (and even requiring them to use) specific procedures. On the other hand, children are often taught concepts that are beyond their developmental capabilities to understand, as if sufficient practice will make these concepts comprehensible to them through sheer repetition. Students end up making nonsensical errors because they really don't—and, at a certain age, can't—grasp concepts such as place value."


"The tendency to underestimate kids — to overlook their often remarkable observations and solutions — is a common complaint of progressive educators and those who support a more child-centered approach to schooling," Kohn writes. "We don't give kids their due! But the tendency to overestimate them, which extends well beyond math, is also worth our attention."

This may seem a little unclear and overwhelming, so let's break it down with a final word from Alfie Kohn:

"[K]ids are often misunderstood in two directions at once. When we pay close attention to children—what they are and aren't capable of, what they need rather than just what we want from them—we're likely to assess their capabilities in such a way that we can avoid expecting too much, on the one hand, or selling them short, on the other."

What it comes down to is a healthy balance of both high and low expectations. We need to set the bar high enough for our kids to reach their goals, but we must also make sure they're low enough to be realistically achieved without putting too much pressure on a child who may be too young to possibly reach those goals. As with anything in parenting, a little balance will go a long way.


Alfie Kohn's original content and article was first published by Psychology Today.

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