One major difference I see between happy parents and unhappy parents is in the gap between their expectations and the fulfilment of their expectations. Basically, if your expectations are high and are not fulfilled, you will be disappointed and unhappy, but if most of your expectations are fulfilled, you will be satisfied and happy.
Expectations are one important factor of happiness. Byron Katie does some wonderful work (she even calls it “The Work”) on how our expectations can make us miserable if they do not match reality (read Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life).
Children living in a family with expectations that are too high to be fulfilled feel inadequate and develop a failure identity. For example, a family of musicians with high expectation from their kids regarding their musical aspirations and abilities would be devastating for a kid whose passion is playing soccer.
In the Be Happy in LIFE parenting program, we cover the expectations from ourselves and from children based on our beliefs, rules and needs. Many parents are surprised to find out that they do not know where they got their expectations. They are surprised to hear themselves saying:
- I expect this because this is what my parents expected from me (30 years ago!)
- I expect this because most people expect it (although “most people” are only the society we live in)
- I expect this because this is the norm (but I want my kids to be special)
- [And the most common is] I expect it because… um… I do not know why
I think that expectations arising from any of the above lead to a lot of heartache and pain in parenting. Expectations need to help kids aim for the sky.
A master can tell you what he expects of you.
A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations
– Patricia Neal
There is a fine line between expectations that empower kids and expectations that cause unhappiness and low self-esteem.
Parents have expectations regarding behaviour, such as good manners, ambition, responsibility and social skills. They have expectations of achievement, academic, social, musical and so on. With any of them, parents need to notice when their expectations lead to happiness or to unhappiness.
There is a good way to balance good and bad expectations. If you want to encourage your kids to move to the next level, here is what you have to pay attention to:
- Progress is done in steps, like climbing a ladder, so find the smallest step possible. If your kid cannot improve, this is always because the rungs of the ladder are too far apart and their legs are too little. You can always, always make a step in the middle to make it easy enough for them to keep climbing. The success of Special Education teacher is in the number of steps they can come up with between every two levels.
- Offer the next step to your kids gently and do not expect them to perform immediately. Give them time to process. Sometimes, just introducing something to kids and leaving it can work magic. As part of my program, I proved that difficult concepts can be taught that way. I would teach something, send the kids away to play, call them back after an hour, teach it again, send them away to play and, magically, their brains found a way to learn.
- Offer help! If they are struggling, ask, “What can I do to help you?”
- Listen. If your kids are too frustrated with something they are doing, it means they are not going to fulfil their expectation (which they may have inherited from you) and they feel bad about it. If they say, “I hate school”, it may be a sign that something is too hard for them at school. If they say, “I hate the Piano”, it is their simple way of saying, I do not fulfil the expectations and I feel bad about it.
- Teach self-motivation. Self-motivated kids are more confident. If they do what they do just to please Mom and Dad and they do not succeed, they may feel frustrated and unhappy. Having to please only one person (and the most realistic at that) is by far easier.
- Teach your kids that life is all about taking calculated risks. Every attempt at something new contains some risk we might not succeed. Still, people learn new things every day. Talk to your kids about risks you have taken, both the successful and unsuccessful ones, and tell them they can never fail if they learn from their mistakes.
- Make sure you tell your kids that you are going to love them regardless of how well they fulfil your expectations. This will give them great strength through tough times.
Expectations are a bad word only if you think they are set in stone. Setting realistic and empowering expectations and adjusting them from time to time can make you a happy parent.