“Your little girl was so good during the concert,” the gray haired lady said, glancing at my three-year-old daughter, Anna. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young child sit so nicely for so long.”
My heart nearly burst with pride. This was what I wanted–for my little girl to be so exceptional that everyone would notice her. Anna had just endured two hours of chamber music without wiggling or talking.
Years later, I watched with alarm as Anna became increasingly critical of herself, intolerant of her slightest mistake. Slowly, it began to sink in. My expectations had been too high. I had demanded behavior appropriate for a child more than twice her age. To win my approval, she had done what I asked, but my demands had wounded her soul.
As I look back, I wonder, why did I expect so much? I was more concerned with meeting my own needs, than meeting my daughter’s needs. I thought having an exceptional child would make me look good. I was humiliated when she misbehaved. Silently and subtly I had told her, “Surpass your peers, or else!”
As Christian parents, it’s not easy to know what is reasonable and what isn’t. We live in a world that rejects our values and thinks that God’s laws are too stringent. We want our kids to be better behaved and more moral than their peers, making it all too easy to fall into the trap of expecting too much. How can we know what is reasonable?
Here are five criteria I use to gauge my expectations.
First, I ask myself, “Is this expectation appropriate for their age?” Six-month-old babies throw things because that’s how they learn to release their tightly clenched fists. A seven-year old may not hear their parents calling because they are going through a time of intense internal reflection. As parents, we need to learn about child development so we can know what to expect.
I found the monthly newsletter Growing Child (1-800-927-7289) especially helpful, because each newsletter was timed to coincide with my child’s age, so I didn’t have to sift through material aimed at parents of older or younger children.
Another resource is your child’s teacher. An experienced teacher has seen hundreds of children your kid’s age and can tell you if their behavior is appropriate. Other parents are also a good source of information, especially parents who are willing to be honest about their own parenting struggles.
The fast pace of life in America tempts parents, like me, to push our kids to grow up. “Many children in America, grow up burdened with demands and expectations,” observes David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Hurried Child (Addison-Wesley, 1988). Families where both parents work, or where there is only one parent, are especially vulnerable because, according to Elkind, “It is not always easy for working parents to separate what is reasonable from what is not. If a child can start dinner, then why not have him or her prepare the whole meal? If the child can keep one room tidy, why not the whole house? The temptation to pile heavy domestic burdens on the child is strong for parents under stress. Helping parents is one thing: Taking over their jobs is quite a different matter.”
Second, I ask myself, “Am I expecting my children to act like their siblings?” We know that each child is a unique individual created by God, yet somehow we are still surprised when our children are so different. Parenting techniques that worked well with one child fail miserably with another. One kid is messy; another naturally neat. That doesn’t mean we abandon all hope of getting the messy child to clean her room. But she may need more detailed instructions and more support to get the job done, than we gave her neatnik sister.
Families often value certain traits more than other. Linda Wagener, Ph.D., a child psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Counseling says, “Parents are often so busy pushing their kids in one direction, that they miss the fact that their child has talents in some other area.” Her advice, “Ask yourself, am I satisfied with these gifts?”
Family dynamics can be especially tricky. When parents fight or there is stress at home, one child may act out while another becomes even more well behaved. The good child thinks, “I’d better be good so mom and dad won’t have to worry about me, too.”
Sadly, many families in pain point to one child as the problem kid, instead of digging deeper to find the root of their problems. I have been tempted to do this at times because my son is very sensitive to my pain. When I am struggling, Sammy’s stomach starts to hurt. It would be easy for me to blame him, after all, his stomach aches add to my stress. My two daughters aren’t so sensitive, making it even more tempting to say that this is Sammy’s problem. But I know from experience that he is feeling my pain and that I need to deal with it.
Third, I ask myself, “Am I expecting my kids to be perfect?” Dr. Bob Barnes author of Ready for Responsibility (Zondervan, 1997) says, “Some parents won’t let their children make a mistake, even a simple mistake. They don’t see the value of making mistakes; they don’t realize that we all learn from our mistakes.”
“I see parents who refuse to let their kids be sad or angry,” says Wagener. Negative emotions are simply not allowed.” This is unrealistic. All of us– including kids– feel fear, anger, and sadness at times. We all rebel against God and ask, Why?
I used to think I could raise perfect kids if I did everything right. When they misbehaved I burned with shame and overreacted, dumping a pile of guilt and shame on their heads. Now I know, my kids aren’t perfect–but neither am I!
I still need to correct them, but I no longer make emotionally charged statements like, “How could you have done that?” or “When are you going to learn? Instead, I say, “I don’t want you to do that.”
Wagener recommends parents ask themselves: “Is it all right if my kids are normal? How do I react when I make mistakes? Is it okay? If you’re not happy when you make a mistake, it is not possible for your kid to be happy when he makes a mistake.”
For years, I confused perfectionism with holiness. Perfectionism is something we do when we try to control our lives and our kids. Holiness is something only God can do as we surrender our lives to him. Perfectionism leads to hiding–not being real about what is going on in our lives. Holiness requires a willingness to be honest about my failures, because there is no forgiveness without confession.
Fourth, I remind myself that children need to test the limits. When my kids were little, I got discouraged when I had to correct them over and over again I thought I should be able to tell them something one time, and they should instantly obey. For a preschooler, this expectation was unrealistic.
I had to realize that all children challenge their parents. It’s normal. I have to stand firm without giving up on them or letting their behavior make me feel like a failure.
Expecting my children to test the limits doesn’t mean I give in to their demands. It means I expect them to feel strongly, and to be emotional about what they want. Bad language and hostility are not allowed, but I know my son will probably cry when I tell him he is grounded. Being prepared for the onslaught, helps me stand firm.
Disciplining children is a lot like steering a car down the road. Little corrections are better than waiting until the car has veered off the road and needs to be shoved back on to the asphalt by a bulldozer.
Fifth, I ask myself, “Am I giving my children adequate attention and support?” Elkind says, “It is hard in our busy culture that values money, getting ahead, and worldly success [for parents] to be willing to take the time to be involved with their children.”
According to Elkind, time is the most important kind of support. “Children regard the public presence of their parents as a visible symbol of caring and connectedness that is far more significant than any material support could ever be. The most expensive gift will never replace the parent’s presence at a child’s birthday party.”
Demands without support are dangerous. Many parents who are concerned about their child’s grades need to ask themselves, “Am I giving my child the support she needs?” It is one thing to rant and rave over a bad report card and quite another to offer the daily support and encouragement a child needs to succeed in school.
Ben Carson, grew up in a Detroit ghetto, yet went on to be the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. In his book, Gifted Hands (Zondervan, 1990), Carson says that his mother’s “constant interest and unflagging encouragement kept me motivated.” When Ben struggled in school his mother “never asked, ‘Why can’t you be like those smart boys?’ Even though he wasn’t doing very well in school at the time, she would tell Ben and his old brother, “I’ve got two smart boys, Two mighty smart boys.”
When he got discouraged, she told him, “You weren’t born to be a failure, Bennie, you can do it. You just ask the Lord, and He’ll help you.”
Anna, my oldest daughter, struggled with basic math facts in second grade. My husband and I, both math whizzes, were baffled by her inability to add simple numbers like 7+5. We tried to help her, but only succeeded in making her more tense. Finally after talking to other parents, we signed her up for a Japanese math program that required daily worksheets, twice weekly classes, and big bucks. I didn’t enjoy making her do her worksheets, driving her to classes, or shelling our my hard earned cash, but we were rewarded when her math scores and her confidence soared.
Sixth, I ask myself, “Am I developing a bad attitude toward my child?” At times, I have been so frustrated with one of my kids that I got angry, withdrew emotionally, and stopped expecting them to succeed. This is a dangerous point in any parent-child relationship.
One day, God showed me that I had developed a bad attitude toward my oldest child. Then He said, “I have never had a bad attitude toward you despite your many flaws.” God always sees us–and our children–with hope. God always endures and never gives up.
If this rings a bell, get on your knees and ask God to help you see your child the way He sees them. Confess your attitude as sin and ask Him to forgive you. Ask God to change your heart and to show you your child from his perspective.
Wagener says parents who struggle with their kids need to ask themselves, “What do I feel when I discipline my child? Love and compassion? Or frustration, anger, and fear?”
Josh McDowell once said, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” This is the key. We can expect great thing, if we are willing to couple our expectations with warmth, communication, and parental involvement. “Like a three-legged stool, all three are crucial,” says Wagener, “the warmth, the communication, and the parental involvement.” Take one away and the stool falls.
Our children must feel that we are on their side, offering love, encouragement, and support. Walter Byrd, M.D. and Paul Warren, M.D. summed it up well in their book, Counseling and Children (Word 1989) when they said, “Parents must communicate a sense that no transgression or shortcoming can sever the lines of acceptance and love that exist between parent and child.”
It took years of prayer and encouragement and a drastic change in my expectation for my daughter Anna to recover. Thankfully, she did. Some of her recovery was gradual, but the big breakthrough came one summer when a group of kids from another church were praying for her. As God touched Anna, she began to weep then sob. “I cried for over an hour,” she later recounted, “while my whole life passed before me.” When she got home, I could see the pain was gone. She was less critical of herself, her family, and friends. She was also less demanding and more comfortable with her emotions–even the negative ones. I had to let up on my demands to create an environment for her healing, but God was the one who touched and healed her heart.
Questions for Parents
HAVE I BEEN TOO HARD ON MY KIDS?
Think your expectation may have been too high? Are your kids:
Hard on themselves?
Intolerant their own mistakes?
Struggling with low self-esteem?
Of course, these symptoms can be signs of other problems, too. If you’re not sure, talk to a professional counselor.
© 2005 Elizabeth Moll Stalcup