Great Expectations (And what to do if they’re NOT so great)

Great Expectations (And what to do if they’re NOT so great)

Great Expectations (And what to do if they’re NOT so great)

We want children and teens to engage in meaningful activities, to be creative, to learn, and to feel fulfilled. Certain kinds of expectations facilitate that. Answers to four key questions about expectations are revealed. Read on…

What do great expectations look like? If they’re too difficult, or too easy, or unfair, who’s to blame? And if kids balk, procrastinate, struggle, or rebel, how can they be encouraged to persevere toward success? Finally, how can parents help kids develop more positive perspectives on expectations?

These are four loaded—and thought-provoking—questions. Let’s consider them one at a time.

#1. What do great expectations look like?

When thinking about the nature of expectations, many variables come to mind. Firstly, what does the word expectation mean to you? What does it mean to your kids? Here are a few possibilities, and each interpretation of the word expectation is a little different from the next: goal; objective; demand; prospect; aspiration; hope; opportunity. Personally, I like the concept of outcome. It implies that something emerges—or comes out—as a result of input—for example, a combination of thought, hard work, patience, creativity, or collaborative activity. If an expectation is to be met, it requires effort.

There are some defining characteristics of great expectations. They include the following:

a) Fairness - The best expectations are well suited to the person who has to meet them. Buy-in and accountability are far greater when children and teens believe that expectations are fair. What’s fair? An expectation should be a good fit—that is, appropriately challenging (neither too easy nor too hard), relevant, and doable within the designated time frame.

b) Involvement – It’s helpful to know whose expectations they are. Parents’? Teachers’? Coaches’? Or the child’s own or co-created ones? Kids who are involved in the design of expectations acquire some ownership. Children and teens can help set their own expectations based on their capabilities, busyness, personal attitudes about getting stuff done, past experiences, self-confidence, and the supports that they believe they can count upon along the way.

c) Being Respectful of Feelings – If an expectation stirs kids’ feelings (such as anger, apprehension, or excitement), this will affect whether they will strive toward meeting it. It’s important to be attuned to children’s and teens’ emotional responses when expecting them to do activities or complete tasks.

d) Worth the Effort – Expectations that cannot be reasonably attained are frustrating. They’re not great expectations because kids will give up. However, expectations that are timely, reachable, and suited to the individual are worth striving for.

#2. If expectations are too difficult, or too easy, or unfair, who’s to blame?

A short answer to this question is that it depends on who is setting the expectations. The longer response to this question is two-pronged, and it’s more carefully considered.

a) Communication - Parents and kids can chat together about an expectation—without laying blame. How is the expectation being perceived? Are there different ideas about what’s actually required? Open communication and candid discussion can allay potential concerns or dissatisfaction. Frankly, it serves no purpose to lay blame or point fingers if an expectation seems off-putting. It’s far better to expend energy amending it, so it becomes more fitting.

b) Flexibility - Flexibility can make or break an expectation. For example, it helps to have a little wiggle-room in relation to timelines, due dates, or the extent or caliber of outcomes. Sometimes, kids experience interference, such as unexpected incidences, family upheaval, or a transition. Is there room for adaptability if a child hits a rough patch en-route to meeting an expectation? Is the environment conducive to trying—and, if need be, trying again? A child who tries, but is unable to meet demands because of difficulties, can be encouraged, guided, and helped—without being blamed (or humiliated.)

#3. If kids balk, procrastinate, struggle, or rebel, how can they be encouraged to persevere toward success?

This question has to do with attitude. The answer lies in whether a child has the desire and fortitude to forge ahead. That has a lot to do with the following:

a) Choice - The drive to succeed is fueled by choice. Kids have to choose if or how they will respond if an expectation seems to be daunting or not age-or-grade appropriate. Offer encouragement, and constructive feedback that’s timely, appropriate, direct, and honest. This will help kids get on track and stay there, and empower them to make good choices so they can meet the expectation, and progress to the next level.

b) Appeal – Unless an expectation seems interesting, attainable, and purposeful, kids are probably within their right to be reluctant to do it. For example, if a task is gross, tedious, scary, or too onerous, it will be a “hard sell.” Reflect upon how to make it become more acceptable, comfortable, and motivating. Suggestions include matching expectations to ability, ensuring relevance, and offering resources. Other tips include longer, interim, or more manageable timelines for completion; fewer steps, constraints or prerequisites; increased opportunities for creative expression (such as infusing music, drama or art into the task); shortcuts that don’t compromise outcomes; clarification of instructions; and the use of incentives that entice or reinforce (for example, regular breaks, and genuine, earned praise).

c) Support – Support comes in many different forms. Here are a few recommendations: Be available to answer questions, and to chat and/or listen. Demonstrate determination because without it an expectation may remain perpetually out of reach. Ask kids if they want assistance creating a step-by-step action plan. Model resilience so they know how to pick themselves up if they falter. Have them strengthen connections with those they trust, and with whom they can talk about issues or concerns.

#4. How can parents help kids develop more positive perspectives on expectations?

A positive perspective can be motivating. Parents are well positioned to help kids become increasingly optimistic and industrious. Here are three strategies that pertain to expectations:

a) Respect Preferences – Kids will be more inclined to strive for expectations if they’re engaging. This might involve incorporating more technology, movement, or social interaction. Don’t underestimate the importance of choice (as noted in #3 above). A bit of fun is also a good idea because it will make a task more enjoyable.

b) Convey Pride - Celebrate the small successes as well as the bigger ones. Show that you believe in children’s ability to succeed. This will help build their self-confidence so they’ll feel good about themselves, and be better prepared to tackle even the more dubious or difficult expectations.

c) Create a Comfort Zone – Work together to ensure that kids have a safe place for reflecting, learning, creating, and maximizing effort. They should have ample time and occasions to co-create meaningful expectations, to aspire to reach them, and to learn that setbacks can be surmounted.

There’s no one right way to set great expectations, or to reach them. However, there are several ways to help kids see the power of possibility—by embracing new opportunities, by overcoming challenges, and by appreciating the joy of achieving outcomes and experiencing fulfillment.

Resource Material

For more on this topic, see Joanne Foster’s book, Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate (coming September 2017), and its predecessor, Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination (2015), both published by Great Potential Press. Also, check out Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (2014, House of Anansi Press), and their first co-authored book, Being Smart about Gifted Education (2009, Great Potential Press).    

Dr. Foster’s webinars for SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) are accessible at Topics include procrastination and productivity; motivation; and using creativity through challenge. Her online SENGinar presentation on the topic of setting expectations is scheduled for Sept. 14th, 2017 (with the recording available subsequently).

For relevant articles, see the column “Fostering Kids’ Success” at The Creativity Post. And, for additional information go to the resources page at or visit the author’s new website at

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