The Core Emotional Need for Realistic Expectations can be defined as helping your children understand what is expected of them, while giving them the freedom to be themselves; it involves fine tuning expectations so that they inspire and motivate your child. When parents meet the core emotional need for realistic expectations, their children will develop some or all of the following traits/beliefs: realistic standards, graciousness, and self-sacrifice with boundaries,1 and they will consistently and on an emotional level believe the following messages from and about their parents:
They know my strengths and weaknesses.
They encourage me to do my best, while letting go of perfectionistic expectations.
They help me to achieve balance between work and play.
Their love for me is not based on the outcome of my achievements.
They value my strengths and aspirations even though they may be different from theirs and not as valued by society.
They give me the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.
They guide me in taking care of myself and endeavor to ensure that I enjoy life.
They truly forgive me when I mess up.
Charlene and Rebecca’s father is a highly successful individual who hails from an established family in the USA—their grandparents have a second mansion exclusively for holidays and are well connected politically and socially—status and achievement are highly valued in their extended family. As much as the girls’ parents have tried to infuse healthy values in their parenting, they have not been able to protect their daughters from the on-going scrutiny of their father’s relatives, who constantly compare them with their cousins: “Freddie got a 2300 on his SATs, but I heard that Charlene only got a 2100!” “And Rebecca didn’t get accepted into riding camp this summer either!” Although Charlene and Rebecca are doing well academically and are attending Ivy League universities, they are struggling in several areas of emotional intelligence. Harboring anger issues, they lack empathy and do not relate to others well. They view themselves as superior and do not want to have much to do with those who do not meet their expectations. All in all, they are not pleasant people to be around. One of the girls has struggled with suicidal thoughts and has recently begun to go to counseling, as have the parents who want help with “repair and reconnection” and with guiding their daughters emotionally and socially.
Exaggerated Expectations Are Not the Cure
All of us have expectations. We expect the sun to come up tomorrow. We expect our friends to return our calls. We expect our spouses to be faithful. We expect our children to grow, to, make friends, explore hobbies, and learn to take care of themselves. When we explored reasonable limits in the previous section, we discussed the healthy and normal expectations parents have for their children. However, in some families there are few, if any, expectations; this can leave children adrift and uninspired, and convey a lack of appreciation for and belief in their strengths and capacities. Conversely, in other families, there are too many expectations, spoken or unspoken; exaggerated expectations can cause undue pressure and anxiety. Hence, the name of this core emotional need is realistic expectations. (The bulk of this section addresses tempering expectations; however from time to time we will speak to those who “under-expect”.)
We live in a world where both adults and children are experiencing increasing stress. Demands and expectations at work and school are pushing people to the limit. Although we are surrounded by timesaving devices, we do not seem to have more time. Children have not escaped the fallout—some are buried under piles of homework, some are involved in endless afterschool activities, and some practice sports for hours a day, not for enjoyment but to help them get a college scholarship, leading to even more pressure.
Children at increasingly younger ages are expected to do more and learn more difficult concepts, beyond what is age-appropriate. Moreover, competitiveness in schools discourages students from helping one another and produces an “every-man-for-himself” mind-set. Parents are pressuring children to get into the best schools and universities, causing households to be rife with tension. Children cringe when parents make comparisons (“Your cousin went to Harvard”), deliver lectures (“When I was your age, I understood the value of hard work . . .”), and nag them about being number one in class or in a sport.
Parents striving to bring out the best in their children are not helped by parenting philosophies such as those espoused in the “Tiger Mother” article published by the Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011, in which a Chinese-American Yale Law Professor boasted about her own parenting. One of her more outrageous paragraphs reads as follows:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it, too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not play the piano or violin.2
We think it is unfortunate that these principles have received so much publicity; not only do we find them unhelpful, we find them harmful—they go against the findings of good research about how to connect with our children and raise them to become healthy adults emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.
The Barrenness of A Busy Life
Many parents these days, even without reading such extremist urgings, overreact out of fear and worry, and force their children to attend extra classes during the weekends, or to sign up for multiple sports activities. Even holidays are filled with make-up classes and camps, fewer periods where families can relax and connect3 (RR16.1). Where does this lead? To the hospital—some doctors estimate that 75% of all medical conditions begin with stress; to the mental hospital—it is well-known that stress causes anxiety and depression; and to the divorce court—many divorces are caused by neglect due to lack of work-life balance, arguments about the lack of it, or lack of unity regarding expectations for the children.
It is time to wake up! This reminds us of a quote attributed to William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of an Ivy League school in the 1950s, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”4 More than two thousand years earlier, the Greek philosopher Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”5
Since there is interplay between the core emotional needs, we remind readers that parents cannot meet the need for realistic expectations without ensuring that the core emotional need for connection and acceptance is also adequately met.
Our children began learning tennis when they were very young, while we were living in Australia. (We knew we would eventually move back to Asia so we figured that we should make the most of living in such a sporty nation!) When our oldest turned eight, she insisted on entering tournaments. We are not sure if she was born with a perfectionistic temperament and naturally competitive nature, or if I (John) passed it to her, but my wife and I decided to intervene early on. We sought advice from fellow tennis parents who taught their children that winning isn’t determined by the score—in their family, a match would be considered a “win” if the player gave his best effort, had a good time, and was a good sport/gracious winner or loser. Conversely, when the child had won solely in terms of the score, the parents would consider the match to be a loss. By helping Sonia to have healthy expectations, she not only enjoyed her matches, she also grew in her character.