Lowering Our Expectations... Why It Can Help More Than Hinder

It was just a brief conversation I had recently inspired this post; a question about a problem that finds a way to pop up everywhere, for those of us who both live and work with children! And that is ‘expectations’.

It reminded me of a recent programme I was involved with, aiming to improve behaviour by strengthening adult-child relationships in schools.

One school was toying with how to rephrase their deficit-based language around sanctions; instead of ‘warning about…’, ‘failed to…’ etc., they were exploring the pros and cons of ‘did not meet expectations’.And while that’s certainly better than the language of ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ and ‘failure’, there is still (IMO) a core problem with what many of us expect from young people.

Firstly, how much right have do we have to expect children to do or anything, when they’ve seldom agreed to those expectations in the first place, and perhaps don’t even know, or really understand, what they are?   
Secondly, how often are our expectations – and this is often true of ourselves as grown-ups, too – frequently too high or unrealistic at that point in time?

Nobody really likes the idea of ‘lowering their expectations’. It can feel defeatist, insulting even.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t heighten our expectations at a more appropriate time.
And I’m definitely not saying we don’t aspire for the best from the children and young people we live and work with. Quite the opposite; we need to have high hopes, especially for the most vulnerable amongst them. 
But let’s not confuse ambition and expectation.

Some of the most challenging situations can be avoided, simply by lowering our expectations. It can transform conflict into connection and endurance into enjoyment. Managing our expectations can make the difference between chance and choice, between hindering and helping.

Here are three of those common expectations that are easy to rethink and redress;

  1. Expecting children to do as they’re told

Sometimes they’ll cooperate, sometimes they won’t or don’t. Often, it’s because their brain simply isn’t working very efficiently; it’s trying to process more than it can handle, or is being compromised by stressor hormones, for example.

But other times they’ve just decided ‘no’. And it can be very frustrating, especially if they’re seemingly being difficult for its own sake.
We frequently forget that becoming more autonomous is the normal, developmental process of growing up.
Raising our kids or working the job we have to do with them may not fit well with the reality, but the truth; albeit maybe uncomfortable; is that it’s no child’s job to make their adults happy, to be easy to work or live with.

  1. Expecting young people to behave like their peers

If it helps to encourage a child; to overcome an obstacle, for example; comparing one child to another might be supportive and appropriate.
But, ‘self-other’ comparisons are not just toxic in the world of social media and advertising, but everywhere! 
Even if you don’t say out loud ‘Well, little Jonny can do this’, or ‘Jack doesn’t behave like that’ etc. to a child, try to avoid that train of thought, regardless.

We don’t expect all 5 year olds to be the same height, or all 8 year olds to be at the same reading level.
And young people’s behaviours, attitudes and choices are just as fluid.
By all means, wish a child had the positives qualities of little Jonny or Jack… But don’t put that expectation on them (or yourself). It doesn’t help anyone.

  1. Expecting them to always use a skill once they’ve learned it, or because they’re ‘old enough to know better

How often does our own frustration emerge with the thought, or a variation of “How many times have we been through this?” 
Unfortunately, it can just an inconvenient aspect of independence and growing up; a child deciding to offer a version on ‘No’.

Or it may point to a less-than-ideal functioning brain. Any competence that is ‘learned’, rather than innate, is wired into the cognitive, thinking ‘upstairs brain’.
But most uncomfortable emotions; i.e. anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, shame, anger; will take them one step further – or send them hurtling down -the figurative staircase, and into the ‘downstairs brain’.

AKA ‘survival brain’, in this state they’re reactive and instinctive. This brain doesn’t think, and it doesn’t care whether it’s right or wrong. Hence why it’s wholly unrealistic to expect a child in this state to have the capacity to problem solve, anticipate consequences or behave appropriately. (Learn more about my CPD on children’s brains here)

Not using a skill they’ve already learned is not always an intentional refusal to use it, but the inability to access it at that point in time. 

What’s more, the brain’s primary organ for memory, the hippocampus, doesn’t sit in the upstairs, thinking brain. 
Thus, remembering something; i.e. “I need to put my dirty clothes in the laundry basket” or “I should sit quietly and raise my hand when I want to talk”; and actioning that, requires those two different brain areas need to work together.
And they don’t always!

It doesn’t always feel like it, but most children – just like us – are trying to do the best that they can with the inner resources they have at the time.
And we tend to be far more effective in filling them up when we meet them with compassion and acceptance, rather than “I expected more from you”.


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