What Are Reasonable Expectations for Children?

Here’s a situation that comes up a lot in my practice: Parents come in and tell me, “Every night it’s the same thing. We tell our kid to get ready for bed, and, 45 minutes later, we go and check on him, and he’s taken off one sock!”

“Every night?” I ask.

“Yes, every night!” they insist.

“Are there ever any exceptions?”

“No, never!” they say.

“Well, apparently that plan isn’t working!” I say.

As parents, it’s easy to get tangled up by our beliefs about what kids ought to do. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter what kids, in general, should do, what most kids can do, what we did at a certain age, or even what a child’s younger sister can do. We have to deal with the child in front of us.

What are reasonable expectations for a child?

A useful guideline is that reasonable expectations for a particular child are what that child does most of the time now, or just a bit beyond that. This doesn’t mean kids can’t learn or progress. It does mean we have to be realistic about where they are now and draw upon what we know about how they learn best.

Some children learn quickly. Others take baby steps. All children progress best when we work with rather than against their enduring tendencies.

In the case of the child who gets distracted getting ready for bed, parents go upstairs with the child to keep the child on-track or check after only 10 minutes. They could also create a kids-versus-the-grown-ups contest to make getting ready for bed more exciting. Offering an extra story if jammies are on and teeth are brushed before a timer goes off could also help this child stay focused on getting ready for bed.

Or maybe timers make this child anxious and a more hands-on, “I’ll get your jammies while you brush your teeth” strategy would work better. Maybe it’s a timing problem, and siblings need to get ready for bed earlier or at different times.

What definitely won’t work is yelling, “Why aren’t you ready?!” or scolding the child by saying, “You should be able to do this!” when there’s no evidence that that’s the case.

What happens when parents don’t have reasonable expectations?

When parents have expectations that don’t fit a particular child, at a particular time, it sets that child up for feeling like a failure.

I know one family where the child, who had been failing academically the year before, earned all Bs. His father responded by saying, “You should be earning As!” The child’s progress was remarkable, but the father’s unrealistic expectations stole the joy from what should have been a triumph. I’m sure the father thought he was encouraging the child to strive for excellence, but his message was demoralizing, not inspiring.

Some of the saddest clients I’ve seen, both children and adults, are those who say, “Nothing I ever did was good enough for my parent(s)!” I don’t think we ever outgrow our wish for our parents to be proud of us.

Realistic expectations aren’t about “settling;” they’re about genuinely seeing our children and helping them grow in their own special way.


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.