Some Ideas About High Expectations

Get practical ideas for interacting with children when Faith speaks about 5 Ways to Transform No into Yes at the National LifeWays Conference on May 18th, 2013.  She will also offer an afternoon workshop on Allowing Children to Help, looking at fostering competence in children.

High Expectations vs. Unrealistic Expectations

I was talking with a friend who doesn’t spend regular time with children the other day, and he said, “Isn’t the key to having children behave just to have high expectations?” I laughed, and said,

“Well, having high expectations is important, as long as they’re not unrealistic.”

“Oh,” he replied. “Well, how can you tell the difference?”

Unexpectely, this question completely stumped me. How CAN you tell the difference?  It’s not just a checklist by age, because some children are much more capable than others.  It’s a little bit about knowing what they’re capable of, but some days the same kids seem much more capable than others.  Just because a child is capable of doing something, doesn’t mean that they’re ABLE to do it on a consistent basis. After sitting with the question for a couple of days, here was the explanation I came up with:

-A high expectation is something that you know a child can do with your help/support, AND you’re willing/able to provide that support.

-An unrealistic expectation is something that a child cannot do even with your support, OR something that you’re not willing/able to help them with.

To give you an example, let’s think about a new little boy who comes to my play program at 23 months. He is not used to sitting at the table through the meal, but I have high expectations, and I expect him to sit at the table until we blow out our candle and wipe our hands. Because of my high expectations, when he gets up, I help him sit back down. He gets up again, and I help him sit back down. This happens four or five times, and he starts to get upset. I sing a song that he knows, which he’s happy to listen to, and then I end the meal a bit earlier than I otherwise would have. With my help, he has succeeded in sitting at the table for the entire meal! The next meal he only tries to get up two or three times, and soon he’s happily sitting through every meal. I had high expectations, and with my support, he was able to meet them. However, if I had not had the patience to sit him back down every time, or had had a baby in my lap or other duties that prevented me from being able to sit him back down every time, then my expectation for him to sit through the entire meal would have been unrealistic. Does this make sense? Using this model, the difference between high expectations and unrealistic expectations has two components: the child’s capabilities, and my own willingness/ability to help the child live into those capabilities.

High Expectations–for Whom?
So, in any home or program, you’ll have some tasks that children are invited to join in, but they can choose whether to do it or not, and other tasks where they’re expected to help.  For tasks where it is expected that the child will help, it’s good to have high expectations.  But high expectations for whom?  It’s really for ourselves, isn’t it? If a task is expected, then you, as the adult, must be willing to give as much help as is needed in order for the child to accomplish the task.  This is where it comes in handy to remember that just because a child is capable of doing something doesn’t mean that she’ll be ABLE to do it on a consistent basis. Not to use this as an excuse to let them wander off, but as a reminder to you, the adult, that sometimes they can do it on their own, and other times they need your help and your support to get through it. It is a reminder to you not to get annoyed when your child needs help. It is a reminder that children need our help to follow through on tasks, even when they’re capable of doing them. If your expectations are high, this means that you will be helping your child follow through with her tasks fairly frequently. If your expectations are high, you will help her follow through EVERY TIME you ask her to do that task. So really, having high expectations of your child means that you must have high expectations of yourself, as well.

This idea of helping a child follow through every time is great in theory, but in reality it seems like it could lead to power struggles.  What if a child doesn’t WANT to do the task?  What if they say, “No!”  Do you force them to do it?

In general, I do my very best to avoid power struggles.  I think that most of the time, they do little except give a child practice saying no.  I want children to say yes, and I want doing what I ask to be the best, most enjoyable option for a child!  And I have lots of ways on how to transform that “no” into a “yes.”  If you want to hear them, then come to the National LifeWays Conference on May 18th, 2013, and listen to my talk!  That’s what it will be about.  Not only transforming their attitude, but making it enjoyable and connecting.  Yes, it really is possible.

When to Give In
There are two times when I do suggest “giving in.” The first is when the child is truly unable to do the task. This can happen when she’s too tired, and sometimes for other reasons that we can’t figure out, but we can tell that if we continue, a melt-down will occur. In that case, create the image of them being able to do it the next time, give them some love, and change your plans. The other time to “give in” is when you have to, because you have no energy to help them follow through. Your imagination, humor, and powers of distraction are at an all-time low. Hopefully this happens very rarely. But when you see it in yourself, realize that what is normally a high expectation has jumped up a level, and become an unrealistic expectation. Adjust accordingly, as soon as you realize that’s where you are:

“Come on, let’s make your lunch for preschool.”


“Gracious. Normally we do it together. But today I’ll do it myself. You can help again another day.”

Realize what expectations are unrealistic for you, and back down for now, knowing that you are building up the strength and the capacity to help your child consistently, with ever-more-complex tasks. The two of you are growing together.


Faith Collins is the founder of Joyful Toddlers, which offers Tele-Classes, talks, and one-on-one coaching for families and daycare providers.  She splits her time between Denver, CO and London, England.