Can reasonable expectations raise better children?

We want from our children too much. If poor people in poor countries want their kids to have a college education and a reasonably good job, we want them to realize our fantasies. They can practice sports and music, in addition to getting good scores in school, but we do not stop there. Should we have better boundaries, as we are setting boundaries for our children? As always, you can find more information here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Great expectations

What is reasonable to expect from our kids?

  1. Need to be citizens of the world.  So they should know English, have good control of digital technologies and be capable of learning online. Every generation feels this stronger than their parents and kids are instinctively tuned to achieve this.
  2. Healthy individuals with diverse interests. Most parents understand this, but have a hard time implementing, as the children get stressed. Usually, this means two different athletic activities (like judo and swimming), at least one musical activity (piano, guitar or percussion), at least one educational activity (robotics, photography, extra language).
  3. Good lifestyle habits. This is a hard fight for everybody. Typically this includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy food doing the homework, meeting with friends. It is OK to have chronic fights over small vices like sugar.
  4. Know and respect the authority and the boundaries set by authority while being curious and creative. Easier said than done, rarely successful without external help. Coached parents and coached kids can do this with 90% success. Both parents and kids are likely to shout and shut doors occasionally.
  5. Positive and open communication. Praise positive self-talk. Give compliments to each other. Practice gratitude. Share concerns. Deal with challenges together.

This is in addition to learning and getting good grades. Tough, but mostly doable, especially if some counseling is available.

Missed opportunities

As we add more to our wish-list, we need to remove something from it. What parental requests generate too much pressure?

  1. Competitive excellence. We want our children to be healthy, but they are also pushed to compete.  If they perform above the average, the competition gets tough. The participants need to practice for hours every day and invest their most expensive resources: the time of the day when they are most energetic and focused. This is not just in sports. Professional guitar players practice 7 hours every day when they are teenagers. Very few people can do this, and succeed at school and have some other interests.
  2. Total discipline. We need our children to respect us, but we should allow them to challenge us occasionally. They are also expected to be somewhat impulsive and cut corners, and occasionally ruin our stuff and disobey. The main strategy is defining the areas where total discipline is required  (safety constraints), areas that are negotiable (best practices), and areas totally open for interpretation. Requesting to do always what the parents tell and not what the child wants, generates a lot of resentment. Putting confusing boundaries results in a lack of respect.
  3. Wide erudition. Some children want to know everything, but these children often experience social problems. Most children have well-defined areas of interest and fill in the rest as they grow. Forcing a child that does not love languages to become multilingual is easy only if the parents actively use the languages they want their children to learn. Expecting our children to know history and geography, it is important to use examples from these subjects as our metaphors. Eventually, we will want our children to know more than we know ourselves. If the gap between what they already can do and what they are required to do is too large, they are likely to lose interest. Making people do something they do not want to do is time-consuming and ineffective.
  4. No weaknesses. Every child will have weaknesses that need to be respected and treated properly. Depending on the kind of the weakness the treatment changes. Some issues are at school subjects, some are social, maybe there will be issues in self-compassion, and maybe something semi-medical like bed-wetting. All weaknesses can be treated with enough patience. This may require years. Parents tend to lose interest and try to ignore or use the “quick and dirty” solutions, often including pills and strange disciplinary approaches. This results in stress and frustration, often with self-loathing.
  5. Pleasure and purpose. You cannot force anyone to be happy, and you cannot infect others with your purposes.  The desired effects may happen naturally if we allow enough openness and deal with concerns. Pushing for happiness and then wondering why the child is not happy will not work. Abundance and success often mimic happiness, but they can hide deep pain and disillusionment.  Creative activity in a positive environment is likely to generate pleasure unless too much pressure is present. Freedom within safe boundaries is likely to generate happiness.

The main opportunity as a parent is to show our children how to face challenges and successsfully overcome them while enjoying the process. This is very tough as it is, do not try to make it harder.

Nothing is good enough

Many children feel entitled. They know very well what should be theirs. Once they do not get it, they are helpless. This is a bad practice.

I quote this:

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.

What we actually want from our children? We want them to be reasonably happy and reasonably successful, so they can marry a worthy spouse, have kids and raise their own kids in a safe and supporting environment. To be honest, we are biologically programmed to do this, and everything else might be a bug in our programming.

Focus on trait rather than specific achievement

A slightly different approach to education is focusing on the desired personal traits rather than specific achievement. Then any task becomes a testing bench for the skillset. This approach is likely to succeed in some cases where other approaches fail. So what are the traits we want for our children?

  1. Autonomy. People need to be able to save small issues themselves, without constantly asking for help. This includes skills of knowledge acquisition and analysis, as well as internal motivation.
  2. Teamwork. As tasks become larger and more complex, people need to work with each other. This is something children rarely practice at school, more in sports or music, under good coaches.
  3. Resilience. Everyone faces difficulties. We want our children to exhibit perseverance and creativity, as well as the ability to deal with frustration and stress.  This is something we should give our children as parents.
  4. Mindfulness. Noticing the small things that make life and hard work worthwhile. Empathy and compassion to others, even if we do not really know them. Spiritual skills are notoriously hard to acquire.
  5. Involvement. We want our children to be involved in the society they are a part of. They should want to make the world better, to teach and contribute. Entitlement deals with what they should get, involvement with what they should give.

If we focus on traits and values, we can still define milestones, only we should enjoy the path rather than the destination and measure improvement rather than specific outcomes.

Parent with child

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