Realistic expectations

Expectations of children is one of the biggest areas of discussion, or should I say contention, in the parenting groups that I facilitate.

When a mum complains about her two-year old wanting to sit on her lap at dinner time, after spending all day in childcare, I ask “what are your child’s needs?” She’s so busy pushing him away because he “should” be in his high chair, she can’t see his behaviour as a need to connect with her. When a mum says she walks away from her tantrumming toddler in the supermarket and threatens to leave him there, and I ask “what have you just threatened to do?” she can’t always relate to the fear that scenario creates.

Some parents don’t understand a child’s need for belonging and connection. And it seems to be the greatest source of conflict between parents and young children. Our society places such an emphasis on independence that young children are given a timeline for developmental tasks. We are so achievement orientated and intellectual, we lose sight of the ball because we’re focused on the goal posts.

Parents worry about the precedent it sets if they feed their three year old, or help their six year old get dressed for school on those days when she just can’t manage it herself, or the nine-year old that snuggles into bed with the parents in the middle of the night after a nightmare. I ask “do you think you’ll still be feeding him when he’s ten years old?”

I never have a tussle with parents over values, diversity is wonderful. I’m simply available to parents to give them the current research on what is believed to benefit children’s development, as we know it at the moment. And the research says that if you have high expectations for children, as a parent or teacher or anyone else working with children, then you need to have a high level of warmth as well. Dr Diana Baumrind was talking about this fifty years ago. Unfortunately, what I see is a whole lot of parents with high or unrealistic expectations for their children and scorn and indignation when the kids, little tiny kids, aren’t meeting the mark.

Underlying all of this angst appears to be the view that children are intrinsically lazy, manipulative, and out to make your life hell. Dr Bryan Post calls it fear based parenting. If I don’t have my child toilet trained by the age of two, how will it reflect on me? What’s wrong with my child?

“Parenting is a process not an outcome, the process dictates the outcome”. – Dr Bryan Post

Sometimes I still need to feed my six year old his breakfast, or help him get dressed. Some days it is all too much for him. It’s not that he can’t do it himself, he just needs some extra love and support. If he can’t get that love and support from his parent, where else is he going to get it?

“Meeting the need extinguishes the need.” – Brian Cade

When parents come to realise this, they find that their child does not need to tantrum or misbehave to get the parents’ attention. Many parents tell me that where before they would have told their child to “do it yourself/go away/hang on/stop pestering me”, if they stop and meet the child’s need when it arises it avoids the power struggles and conflict and tantrums. Some parents say that when their walls of strict adherence to independence are broken down, it is such a relief for them to be able to tend to their young child’s need for love and care and nurture and belonging. They learn to approach parenting from a heart level rather than a head level.

“YOU, are what you teach your children”.  – Dr Magda Gerber

I love having parents in my groups who have many children with a wide age range, from young adults down to toddlers. People who have been parenting for over twenty years. They always barrack for process rather than product. They have had the experience of being uptight about their older children and by the time the sixth or eighth child comes along, they have learnt to follow their child’s lead. Children let you know what they need.

“You don’t need an instruction manual when you become a parent, your children are your instruction manual”.  – Dr Kent Hoffman

One parent I worked with moved from fear based parenting to love based parenting within a matter of weeks. When she came to the parenting group, she was miserable with her parenting and was seeking a diagnosis for the children because the four-hour long tantrums just had to be signs of autism, attention deficit disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Four months down the track her children were glowing and there were no more tantrums. She told a group of parents at the time, how beautiful her children became after she started parenting them more positively – not yelling, having realistic expectations of them, creating moments of connection wherever possible. I said “they always have been beautiful”, and she replied “I just couldn’t see it before”. Parental state of mind is everything. What the parent thinks of the child, the child will integrate into his self (Dr Dan Hughes).

“Infants come to know, and be known by, mother’s mind, as well as to know their own minds.” – Dr Beatrice Beebe

Some of the parents coming to the parent groups I facilitate are motivated by their need to fix their children. By the end of the course, they know it is themselves and how they are responding to their children that needs to change. Having realistic expectations for our young ones is a big part of understanding and responding to them, and enjoying them. Grow them up with love, care, kindness, nurture and support.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela


Narelle Smith


slow learner


Categories: Parenting Skills


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