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Adjusting Our Parenting Expectations

Adjusting Our Parenting Expectations

Realistic expectations are the key to handling frustration.


When my kids were little, I couldn’t wait for them to go to bed at night. That didn’t come out quite right! Let me rephrase…When my children were younger, I enjoyed every minute of our busy days together. It was with great regret that I read them that last story, said the Shema, and shut the light.

But I had plans for the evening – nothing exciting, but plans nonetheless: stored-up projects and phone calls, expectations of some adult time with my friends or husband, a hope for a little quiet reading.

Frequently I would just be settling down to one of these activities when I would hear the telltale sound of little feet and a soft voice pleading, “I’m scared. Can you come lie with me?”

As long as I believed the night was “my time,” I was doomed to be annoyed and frustrated.

My first reaction was frustration. All my plans down the drain. But after a few nights like that, I realized the problem wasn’t the situation; it was my attitude and expectations.

As long as I believed the night was supposed to be “my time,” I was doomed to be annoyed and frustrated by every interruption. But once I accepted that the nights were, in fact, not my adult time, that my children still needed me then – and that if I put off projects until the evening, they weren’t going to get done – my frustration (mostly) vanished. It took me awhile to fully learn that lesson but once I did, I realized it could be applied to many situations.

The secret seems to be realistic (as opposed to low) expectations.

If I expect my very full and busy house, aided only by the occasional cleaning help, to look like my friend’s fairly empty home with a daily cleaning lady, I will be frustrated. In fact, I will be more than frustrated. I will spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning – only to discover that I am never fully caught up. I will probably raise my voice to unattractive decibels as I try to cajole my children into helping me attain these standards.

Bottom line: It won’t be very much fun around here.

Or I could recognize that the price of a bustling household may be a little more dust (okay, a lot more dust) and some books out of order.

I just needed to change my expectations.

Setting Priorities

Frequently, people come to me with tales of their childhood, or as they have re-imagined it. “We listened to everything our parents said. We would never think of disobeying.” “Our father’s word was law. We sat quietly through every meal and only spoke when spoken to. We never left the table without permission.”

The underlying message seems to be a popular theme, “What’s the matter with kids today?” – i.e. why aren’t my children behaving the way I did? (You mean the way you think you did!)

That song was written in 1963; this is clearly not a new problem. Nor do I think my friend’s memories are completely accurate. But it doesn’t really matter. Once again we are the victims of unrealistic expectations. Today’s children don’t sit quietly at the dinner table waiting to be spoken to – and do we really want them to? Authority has to be used sparingly. Respect has to be not just mandated but earned. If we expect complete adherence to our every desire, we will be frustrated and disappointed. Let’s aim for a healthy relationship with mutual caring and cooperation.

Our children’s priorities are not ours. They may be oblivious to the mess they leave, the loudness of their music, and the disruptiveness of their constant texting. They are certainly oblivious to the fact that parents have needs, too – outside of caring for them. (And once in a while we need to remind them of that fact!) We may need to discuss some of these behaviors with them – but only once we realize that they are normal. Only once we recognize the limits of our authority. Only once we adjust our expectations to the messy (in every respect) reality of life with children and stop focusing on some idealized vision.

We are raising real, complex and intricate people, not dressing up dolls and playing house. Our expectations need to match this reality – for everyone’s sake.

January 26, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 4

(2) Em, January 27, 2013 11:44 PM

Scott made a good point. The article is still good reminder of setting realistic expectations

(1) scott, January 27, 2013 5:48 PM

I disagree completely. This type of advice is exactly what is wrong with kids today.

I heard stories of my fathers and grandfathers upbringings when I was a child and cringed. How could their parents behave that way toward them? I'd never put up with that. But then I look at my father and grandfather. At 18 my grandfather walked off the farm with $5,00 and the clothes on his back. He joined the army, became successful at his trade married in his early 20s had three sons, all of which graduated college and he retired at 60 after two careers respected and financially stable. I look at my father who was the first in his family to go to college. He paid his own way, became a successful engineer, married and fathered two children in his early twenties. He never had to ask his parents for money or move back home. He's finally retired. Married to the same woman he started with. They were grown men at 18. I look at myself and my peers. A pathetic lot. Children until our mid-thirties. Divorces. Many of us borrow money from our parents or move back home. A large number of us are unable to marry and start families until our mid to late thirties and still count on some level of support for our parents. Why? Because we had it way too easy as kids. Spoiled. indulged. Given time to "find ourselves." I can't tell you how many of us were "gifted underachievers." It was all bull. I love and respect my parents, but looking back at things I resent that they were not tougher on me; that they weren't prepared to be the heavy. Instead of counseling, I needed a good foot in my behind. The excuses they made for me I made for myself. The tougher you are on them..the tougher they will be on themselves. The more you demand they respect you and enforce that respect, the more they will respect themselves. Be parents, not friends. Your kids will either live up to your standards or they will live down to them. Your choice. Not theirs. They're the children. You're the parents. Act like it.

Susan, March 23, 2013 1:50 AM

i agree with you Scott

I couldn't agree more! i wish my parents were tougher with me as i was growing up. Thanks!

Anonymous, April 21, 2013 4:24 PM

You need to look at the whole picutre

There's a clear downside to the extreme end of the "looser" style of parenting seen more often when we were growing up, as you've noted. The downside to the stricter mode of parenting is less clear, primarily existing in the psychological realm. Major self-esteem and family-centered behavioral issues come to mind. Further, I would venture to say that a lot of the issues with the way we were parented is a direct result of or backlash to the way our parents were raised. On the flip side, the different parenting styles promote different qualities in kids. This is partially illustrated by the super-strict Chinese, who are largely seen as highly successful--they are diligent and excel in the maths and sciences and typically ARE very successful, but are extremely lacking in all sorts of creative thought. You might scoff at the value creative thought, except in this start-up era, that's what it's all about. Not to mention the simple positive outcomes that emerge from a creative mindset. Aren't creative people, just, happier? Lastly, broken marriages and such are so much more than bad parenting; they're a function of a massive shift in cultural attitude. A good sum-up example of everything noted here is that, from my (admittedly somewhat limited) knowledge, our parents marriages were/are way more fundamentally dysfunctional than the marriages of today, but they have the stick-it-out mindset. Our generation has marriages that could easily be saved, but they don't try. If I had to pick one situation to work with, I'd certainly rather the second. Now, all that said, I was, and to a degree still am, an underachiever because of the way I was raised. But I can also point to all the things I've gained because of that "parenting package," and I would not trade it for a stricter model any day.

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