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Setting Parental Expectations

Photo by Daniel Jurin

About Expectations: Sample Responses and Types

Glenna believes that what she does must always be “top-notch.” She worries when she feels she’s not excelling. When completing a puzzle, a dance, or something else, she sometimes becomes stressed if it doesn’t turn out well. Expectations may be self-imposed or established by others, but either way, it can feel like a lot of pressure to Glenna.

Simon lets expectations bounce off and away like water droplets, and he isn’t bothered by them. He sometimes gets distracted or otherwise occupied. If he meets expectations, that’s fine, and if he doesn’t or if it takes a long time, that’s okay with him.

Shayanne likes music, and Noah likes anything having to do with cars and trucks. Each of them is more invested in these specific activities and is most comfortable with expectations in their particular areas of strength or interest. (Otherwise, they tend to delay or avoid things.)

These are examples indicating how young children might respond to expectations. However, there are various types of expectations, too.

Expectations come in all shapes and sizes. They may be easy, difficult, fair, imaginative, or collaborative. They may have long or short incubation times. They may be anticipated or not. Children like familiarity, but they like surprises as well, provided they’re manageable.

Glenna, Simon, Shayanne, and Noah will also tell you that they prefer doing things that are fun! Expectations can be set by a child based on what they want to accomplish—and how—or by one or more adults who decide what should be done. Ideally, if expectations can be co-created, then everyone can be onside.

The important thing is to respect a child’s individuality, choices, and concerns, and this means setting expectations that are fitting and relevant. Unrealistic expectations can leave children feeling overwhelmed, confused, upset, and even disenchanted with learning, whereas realistic expectations can provide them with appropriate challenge, excitement, gratification, and motivation.

Let’s look at some considerations for co-creating expectations that children—like Glenna, Simon, Shayanne, and Noah—or your own children—will want to aspire toward, and that will help them flourish.

Co-creating Expectations: 8 Suggestions for Parents

  • Clarity – Ensure that your child understands the expectations. Use relatable language and examples. Listen and respond to questions. Review details as needed.

  • Pause – Children benefit from having time to stop and think about what they’re supposed to be doing. Encourage them to pause and do that. Are they on track with what’s expected? If not, how can you or others help with pacing?

  • Flexibility – Can the expectations be adjusted? Perhaps the timeline, the amount of effort required, the materials, or the scope of the task? What, if anything, requires tweaking?

  • Awareness – Expectations inevitably generate implications and consequences. Help your child appreciate that one thing leads to another. For example, building a kite can lead to expectations of flying it. Meeting expectations can culminate in joy, pride, knowledge, and more. Not meeting them isn’t reflective of failure but rather of opportunities to learn and grow. (Not every kite soars.)

  • Viability – A task or activity should be meaningful—that is, worth starting and striving to complete. But keep in mind that there’s more to expectations than outcomes. Children should experience pleasure along the way. Reinforce this. It may come in the form of creative expression, small-step accomplishments, collaborative activities, or other means.

  • Patience – Don’t push the rush button. Forgive faltering. Emphasize positives such as your child’s attitude, perseverance, preparation, curiosity, imagination, organization, and evolving skill sets, and learning curves. All of this can take time en route to meeting expectations.

  • Confidence – Encourage children’s self-talk. (“I can do it!” or “I know what to do!”) Faith in oneself can be a game-changer and boost confidence. Moreover, when the adults in a child’s life show that they also believe in a child’s abilities, it sends a powerful message.

  • Encouragement – This is SO important, which is why I’ve left it for last. Be available and responsive. Support children’s preferences, questions, enthusiasms, and day-to-day experiences—including encouraging them to overcome hurdles, build upon what they already know, and engage in various learning opportunities. Remember that kids may need guidance as well as encouragement as they endeavor to meet expectations or as they create modified or new ones that better suit their needs.

The Best Expectations?

“I dwell in possibility.”

~ Emily Dickinson

The best expectations are inspiring, and they’re designed or adapted for a child’s interests and levels of readiness. Expectations should be clear and reachable. Glenna, Simon, Shayanne, and Noah enjoy being given chances to explore, play, choose activities, and create—independently, as well as with others. Although children learn differently, they learn best when they’re happy, nurtured, appropriately challenged, and motivated.


Joanne Foster, Ed.D. is a multiple award-winning author of several books. Her most recent is Being Smart about Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change (co-authored with Dona Matthews). Dr. Foster’s forthcoming book, Ignite Your Ideas, is on creativity, and it’s for kids! (More information coming soon!) To learn about her many publications and presentations and for resources on supporting children’s well-being, visit

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