Setting Expectations For Children: Why Must We Be Clear For Them To Be Clear As Well?

“Behave,” “Be a good child,” “Cut it out,” “Knock it off,” “Treat your sister right,” “I’ll give you a gift,” etc.

We keep repeating such vague reminders again and again and expect our children to do things differently as we have visualised in our minds. Being elders, it’s easier to get tangled up in pre-conceived beliefs about what kids ought to do and what not. However, is it fair to ask something of children, without communicating our expectations clearly or by not giving them the slightest indication of why they should fulfil them?

As a child grows up, he/she discovers the joy of independent thinking and of exercising their will. As parents and teachers, we should facilitate this process of discovery and help them understand the consequences of making appropriate choices in life. It’ll also aid the process of setting well-appreciated expectations. If not, then the child will remain in the state of perpetual confusion and end up doubting his/her capabilities while seeking our approval and appreciation, every time.

Not meeting our parents’ expectations is scary. This fear soon turns into anxiety and panic when kids realise they’ve undertaken the wrong path.

Communicating expectations to children, and following through consistently is crucial for establishing limits and safe routines. Expectations, when stated politely, specifically, and constructively, erase doubts and builds confidence in children. Also, the expectations we set must be the ones we’re confident that children can fulfil.

Here are a few things that every elder must consider before setting expectations for children.

  • Making expectations clear for oneself

Understanding why we expect something from our child will help clarify the need for that expectation in our mind, like ‘You should take a bath now.’ Have we ever evaluated why a child needs to bathe just when we want them to? Maybe we should! This way, we can find our answers that help us rationalise the expectation and allow clarity.

Timely bath time is a sign of self-discipline, which goes a long way in character building. So, raising the bar in this regard is worthwhile provided it’s not driven by personal whims and fancies – this is more important! Otherwise, it’s difficult to build mutually clear expectations with children when being an adult we don’t exactly know what we want ourselves.

  • Communicating clear expectations to our kids

After having clarity in our thoughts, we should be able to communicate in a way that they understand. Some children are quick learners, but others take baby steps toward their goals.

Tots follow best when we work with, not against their natural tendencies.

For munchkins who get distracted before bedtime, “I’ll get your PJs while you brush your teeth and then we can read a story before bed,” encourages him/her to stay focused while following their nightly routine. What surely doesn’t work is yelling – “Why haven’t you put on your pyjamas yet,” or “Why aren’t you on your bed?” when the child clearly doesn’t know what exactly is expected of him/her.

Appropriately communicating expectations makes the context and intention clear to the kids. Once they get this clarity, it becomes easier to follow instructions. At the same time, we need to figure out what our child expects from us. Maintaining transparency at both ends builds a mutual trust with children.

  • Respecting a child’s individuality

Most children, due to some reason, can’t completely fit into any given mould and we should consider their unique abilities when setting high standards for them.

Many charts, researches, statistics, and articles highlight what kids of a given age should be able to do, and what not. However, we must consider that no child is average. While it’s okay to set standard rules for all kids in a family, we must remember that s/he is one of a kind and should be treated as an individual. Considering the child’s interests, strengths, weakness, etc., and setting our expectations based on his/her individuality will help him/her fulfil them in a better way.

  •  Being prepared to answer what if the expectation is not met?

While it is important to set high expectations for your child, we must let him/her know that falling a little short of them doesn’t mean s/he is a failure. We need to explain it to them that when they reach for high standards, they can still make great progress, even if they don’t achieve a particular milestone, or exactly hit the mark.

However, every expectation can’t have a fall-back option. So, if something has to be done, they have to do it. And for that whatever needs to be done, should be done. In this case, we need to help them find how to do it and to focus more on the journey, without worrying about the achievement and outcome of it.

Better understanding and consistent transparency are keys to building a beautiful relationship with the child. Without consistency, it’s difficult for us to give effective instructions, as well as for our kids to follow them.
  • Being patient and consistent in approach

Consistency is the key in making things work – for us and for children. Giving in to ‘can’t do any more’ or ‘just for once mum, let it be’ sends signals to put a stop. A break might be very crucial but we have to be careful to prevent it from becoming a pattern.

Making clear long-term and short-term expectations and setting milestones along the way is a better way to deliver expectations, as it’s important to show a child what is expected in the present, as well as, the future. Perhaps going to college is a long-term expectation, but breaking this long-term goal into short-term goals definitely helps along the way.

It may seem to us that kids do exactly the opposite of what they’re told, perhaps due to old-fashioned stubbornness or because of distractions. What we fail to consider is that misunderstandings may occur because we don’t communicate our expectation clearly, or we don’t appreciate their manner of growing up and hence, force our expectations on them.

Like, if arranging their toys before going outdoors to play is a rule that every child must follow in the family – then efforts should be made by the elders to deliver it in a way that makes it clear to the tot how and why they’re related and what would be the consequences of not doing it.

What’s your approach? Feel free to share your thoughts at

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