How Parents and Teachers Can Get Bad Results with “High Expectations” for Children?

What Does it Mean to have High Expectations for Children?

All the research shows (what our intuition knows) that children rise to our expectations of them. The work of Carol Dweck reinforces this wisdom.

And educational reformers all know the research and use it to justify work on “standards” and “holding people accountable” for high standards.

But what does it mean to have high expectations? What does it look like?

What does it feel like? What does it sound like?

If a parent says: “I expect you to get A’s,” is that a good example of high expectations?

If a teacher says: “I am expecting you to behave well on this trip?” What is her attitude?

If a parent says: “I expect you not to cheat,” doesn’t it depend on the tone of voice?

It’s not so much what you say. It’s what you take for granted. Parents who take for granted that their children are capable humans find that, low and behold, their children believe they are capable and will maintain this expectation even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Approach A: Adults take for granted their child is capable. Child acts as if he is capable and steps up to challenges. When he fails or make mistakes, he adjusts his grip and tries again; his assumption that he is capable is not touched. He takes it for granted because the adults have never done anything to make him question that assumption. He goes through life learning about his strengths and weaknesses, his loves and his dislikes, and treats successes and failures mostly the same–as learning opportunities. This dynamic yields success—or should we say, it yields a lifetime of successes and failures that add up to a good life because the child believed in himself.

Approach B goes like this: the adults worry about their child’s chances for success, and say things like “I expect you to…” in such a way that the child hears that the parent believes that the outcome could go either way. A low outcome will be evidence of capability. The child feels: “My capability is by no means a certainty in my parent’s mind. The jury is out until enough successes come in.”  B is a common formula for a self-perpetuating negative mindset which makes failure more likely—even in the face of a number of successes.

Approach B (B is for bad) is often picked up by schools. When teachers tell their kids what they expect, do they really expect it in the sense of “anticipate” or are they putting pressure on their students out of fear of failure? After all if we don’t get those test scores up the funding will go away—or worse.

Dreams come true, and fears are negative dreams.

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12 thoughts on “How Parents and Teachers Can Get Bad Results with “High Expectations” for Children?

  1. It’s so funny … I know that Dad probably wakes up somewhere between 4 and 5 knocking around in his head the germ of what eventually becomes the days entry. If you slept in Decatur, you took the time (as you apparently did) to recognize Carol Dweck and craft it with lots of care, launching it at about half-past 6 (cue the first few bars of William Tell, with overlay of bird songs) looking forward to a day rich with potential. It arrives here, in Japan, at 20:30 hours — my day having run its course, the brutal realities of life having already collided with whatever I had been expecting at 6am, my time. (Actually, I have had a pretty good day. I am just tired and happily anticipating bed … taking it for granted, actually.)
    I found it interesting that you liked (as I like on a gut level) this idea of kids rising to our expectations. But when you put those expectations into words, I hated them, as you hated them. I am trying to think of a way to form a sentence using the word “expect” that doesn’t bother me. “I expect you to … hmm … be open enough to the range of possible outcomes so that whatever unfolds as a result of the efforts you put it has the effect of triggering a release of serotonin so that you will then be motivated to try again.” But yeah … “expect” feels not quite right. I mean “want,” I think. If the parent is being honest, what s/he really means is “I REALLY REALLY want you to not cheat on the test.”
    With out rejecting the whole idea of expectations, Dad shifts the focus away from choosing a verb like “expect” to the object of the verb … and focuses on the object of the verb. In this case, he has exchanged “expect” for something less desperate-sounding — “take for granted”; and then he zeroed in on an adjective — “capable.” The adjective “capable” implies a prepositional phrase “of something.” By leaving off the prepositional phrase — “I take for granted that you are capable.” — we get a statement that means … (for lack of a better word) nothing. AND I LOVE IT…. Why?
    Because I think anytime I have done right as a parent or as a teacher or as an (admittedly very inexperienced) businessman, it’s really been because I have expected nothing and taken nothing for granted. I have simply offered the child (or the trainee or the business partner) the opportunity in as easily recognizable terms as possible, and empowered the other party to make the choice. Operating in this way is difficult. In business, people talk about “knowing your walk-away conditions.” Nothing — in my experience — achieves discipline better than clear walk away conditions: sorry, kid, this lunch-with-me-in-a-crowded-restaurant venture simply won’t launch under conditions that involve you screaming for something that your mother is holding. It’s business, it’s not personal.
    I guess, if we are going to apply the concept of “expectations,” I’m cultivating reasonable expectations of the only behavior that I have a chance at controlling — mine. What I see parents and teachers do all the time (teachers less so than parents), is enter into negotiations with their kids without knowing the kinds of things you need to know before you do business — your “walk-away conditions,” “your exit strategy,” “your management team,” “your core competencies.”

  2. “I believe you are capable of getting an A.” might be better framing of the expectations from your child.

  3. It’s essential to have “high” expectations for your children but high is a relative term. What is the standard that you are using to set the expectation? What is as important as setting the expectation is how it gets communicated because, depending on the age of child, maybe not, it must be clear and have some degree of appeal. I would also submit that the expectation, knowing your child, should also be reasonable and realistic. How about getting some agreement from the child that the expectation is acceptable? That might be a good starting point.

  4. These are good points and I still think trust is in the mind of the truster, first, and what is in the mind of the truster gets communicated more through tone of voice. Lisa’s words are fine, but often they are best left unsaid. Once said, it is often not clear if the parent is stating a fact, or trying to motivate. The latter backfires or has negative side effects.

  5. I agree with the basic thrust implied in the idea that “I trust you.” is best not said. I also like “trust” more than expect. But why is it best not said? I think because there’s something about it that doesn’t feel quite right. Trust is a little like faith — isn’t it? Belief without evidence? I believe that I can expect a certain range of outcomes regardless of the evidence I presently have. I think what we really mean when we say “I trust you.” is either “I love you.” (i.e. my feelings toward you are without condition, such that YOU can trust ME to be ready to accommodate the choices you make as best I can. You may not catch me when I fall, but I welcome even the experience of you not catching me) OR (more likely) you mean “I am confident that I have already created the conditions that will compell you to make the choice that I desire you to make.” which … if you think about it is a pretty sadistic thing to say to someone (best not said, even if it happens to be true). I still think the real issue is that the child needs to have adequate data about the choices before her/him. You can’t hide the fact that you WANT things. Isn’t that the verb that we are avoiding? It seems to me that what the child needs to know (beyond what your own limitations are concerning your ability to accommodate the child’s range of possible choices; i.e. I can’t allow you to scream in this crowded restaurant) is the reasons why you want the things you want. That information is much more valuable than an account of the things you profess to believe will happen absent adequate evidence that they will.

  6. There are a lot of ways to convey to a child that he/she is capable and that you have “high expectations.” This reinforces what I’ve always believed. Quibble all you like about the semantics.


  7. If we takiing the words literally — “high expectations” or “capable [“of what” omitted] — they strike me as dishonest ways to communicate to children. The first is sadistic, the second obfuscates. But I doubt good parents actually intend their literal meaning. Then the question becomes, Is it an acceptable parenting tactic leave the terms undefined? Maybe it is. Maybe we are thereby preparing children for a life of dealing with imprecise communicators and obfuscators.

  8. I’d like to introduce some other dimensions here:

    allowing your child the space to fail,

    giving your child the gift of distance or differentiation (saying, thinking, or behaving in a way that lets the child know the failure belongs to the child and in no way reflects or belongs to the parent)

    and the gift empathy when she does fail (“oooh, that smarts, doesn’t it?” or similar)

    As for the other examples, doesn’t it really depend on the age and/or maturity of the child? If a teacher says: “I am expecting you to behave well on this trip?” — aren’t the expectations different from first grade to say, a high-school student?

  9. Nailed it, Liz.
    I think you have put your finger on what makes people uncomfortable about the idea of having high expectations or wants or big plans for. And “room to fail” is a nice way of putting it. You’re not saying, “room to pursue whatever outcome you feel like” or “room to take whatever attitude you like.” By choosing the word “fail” you have preserved the idea that there are standards. We might not get them right, and the ones we are working with might not be serving our kids the way we want, but standards as a category of concern are not rejected. But especially if it’s a high standard, given that there is a corresponding increased likelihood of failure, we need to adopt a stance that makes it possible to exploit that failure experience to the most positive ends possible.
    The thing about time-and-a-place-and-a-kid is good too. “I am expecting you to behave well on this trip?” is and handy choice of words for a chaperoning adult. It’s situation-specific, and is actually just shorthand for a complex set of reciprocal obligations that involve consequences that the chaperone wants to avoid having to meet out if at all possible, and perhaps sets conditions under which either the trip might be terminated or under which future trips might be canceled. (The chaperone needs, of course, to be confident that all of these contingency plans can in fact be executed or s/he shouldn’t agree to the trip.)
    What feels sketchy is when “expectations” (read reciprocal obligations) get longer-term and more generally applied. When rules get that all-encompasing, then they can’t be enforced, and they become more overbearing as a result; because the child can never be certain that a consequence is coming. Folks that take Rome seriously when it says you shouldn’t masturbate know this feeing. I’m thinking of one of the disciplinary oddities of a couple Japanese schools that I have worked at. The boys are “required” to keep their top buttons buttoned. The girls are “required” not to let their skirts get above the knee. If you have seen any Japanese Manga that feature school boys or girls, you know that following those two regulations is HIGHLY unfashionable (by about 30 centimeters) — to the point where teachers don’t bother … unless the kid really pisses them off, and then the rule provides the excuse to come down especially hard.
    And sorry if this is laying it on a little thick, but there’s a third thing I liked which is Liz’s nod to empathy. You’re trying to control a busload of kids, you need whatever ham-handed devices will get the discipline job done and keep everyone safe, fine. But if we can get our teaching and parenting and business dealings to strive in that empathic direction where we know the other deeply enough to want the right things, then at that point, we are all simply in the moment just doing our best to do good, and an expectation (read whatever) becomes a mere hypothesis we are all testing together, open to whatever learning the outcome that experiment holds for us.

  10. In the first week of school one year, I asked a notorious bully to help a little girl find and open her locker. He looked puzzled and asked, “Who, me?!” (He didn’t know me at the time. He was probably wondering if I knew what he was “capable of.”) I assured him that yes, I was talking to him. He went with her and came back with little fanfare, though she gushed her thanks. I never saw a single episode of bullying from him that whole year. I agree; kids will rise to whatever level we have faith in 🙂

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