A mother wrote to me saying that the problem she thinks she is having with her children is that she never knows where to set her expectations. That is such an important issue because in a way it goes to the heart of child-rearing. The question really is, does what we expect from a child match where he or she is developmentally and what he or she is capable of doing? Often when we seem to have hit a snag, that’s where the problem lies.
The question we’re trying to answer is not as simple as it may seem. Sometimes mothers try to answer it by looking at charts that tell you what children are supposed to be doing at different ages. Sometimes we compare our own children to others of the same age. This is not very helpful because not only is every child different, but one’s own child is a real child, not the hypothetical child of the charts.
Also, the question is challenging because there are different aspects to development: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and a range of development within each one. Children’s development often varies from one area to another. These various areas of development don’t all grow and develop evenly, or at the same pace. This can be confusing in terms of what we expect, since next steps in some things may not relate to where a child is in others.
For example, what we often find is a child jumping ahead with many skills, such as learning letters or numbers, playing complicated games, having interesting conversations. Yet that same child may resist dressing herself, or start to act babyish, or continue to provoke a younger sibling. Also, children’s understanding of what we are asking of them is usually way ahead of their doing what we ask. That’s why when you ask him over and over again to “stop doing that”, it often does no good, even though he understands what you are asking.
Our children may show their ability to reason and yet seem unreasonable in their behavior. Aside from the fact that what seems reasonable to them may not seem reasonable to us, there are other factors that influence their behavior. One big one is impulse control. A child’s ability to control the expression of his feeling in behavior –not to strike out when angry, or to throw something when frustrated – often lags behind his understanding that he is not supposed to do that. Understanding and control are two different skills which may not be in synch with each other.
Another major influence on children’s behavior is their ongoing conflict about dependence and independence. The push for autonomy is very strong and can lead children to try to assert themselves in ways that run counter to what we want them to do at any particular time. At the same time, independence can feel a little scary for a child himself. You still need and want to be taken care of by mom and dad. Maybe you’ll lose that if you act too grown up. The struggle between the wish both to be independent and dependent can account for the puzzling babyish behavior that pops up from time to time in a child who otherwise seems so mature.
So, how can we tell what is appropriate to expect of our children at any given point? Part of the problem may be with the word “expect” itself. It suggests that a child is supposed to do something and that it is bad behavior or something else is wrong if he doesn’t do it. Most often when we think a child is capable of behaving in a certain way, or doing something we ask, we expect him to do it.
As we’ve seen, the ability to do something is made up of a number of different skills. When we seem to be getting stuck on something we think a child should be able to do, it is helpful to think first about whether our expectation matches what we know about our own particular child. What part of what we are expecting may be hard for her? If she becomes clingy in new situations, do we also know that she is a child who is slow to warm up? If he persists in annoying his little brother, is he resisting the message we have been giving that he is supposed to be the grown-up big brother?
Parents are both leaders and followers. We follow the leads children give us through their behavior, but we also lead them to the next step. In general, a good rule of thumb is to be slightly ahead of where a child is – not where we think he should be – while at the same time leading by showing the way to where we want him to go. When a child is having difficulty, we may have to take a step back in order to help him take a step forward. But we always have to keep in mind where we are going so that we ourselves don’t get stuck helping.