Domestic Arts: High Expectations

Dear Miss Faith,
I was interested to read your post about chores, the difference between being capable of doing a task, and being ‘able’ to do the task, as you describe it. Does this mean that you just let your child do as much or as little as they feel like that day, and accept that they’re not ‘able’ to do it some days? That rings a little false for me. Doesn’t having high expectations help them do better?

I’m glad you wrote with your questions! My emphatic answer is YES, having high expectations helps children to be their best selves. Let me explore this idea a little, and then I’ll get to the first part of your question, about whether to “just let your child do as much or as little as they feel like.”

High Expectations vs. Unrealistic Expectations
I was talking with a friend (who doesn’t have children) the other day, and he said, “Isn’t the key to having children behave just to have high expectations?” I laughed, and said, “Well, having high expectations is important, as long as they’re not unrealistic.” “Oh,” he replied. “Well, how can you tell the difference?”

I had to think about this for a while. How CAN you tell the difference? It’s not just a checklist by age, because some children are much more capable than others. After sitting with it for a bit, here was the explanation I came up with: a high expectation is something that you know a child can do with your help/support, AND you’re willing/able to provide that support. An unrealistic expectation is something that a child cannot do even with your support, OR something that you’re not willing/able to help them with.

So, using this model, let’s look at a child who is new at Rainbow Bridge. He is not used to sitting at the table through the meal, but I have high expectations, and I expect him to sit at the table until we blow out our candle and wipe our hands. Because of my high expectations, when he gets up, I help him sit back down. He gets up again, and I help him sit back down. This happens four or five times, and he starts to get upset. I sing a song that he knows, which he’s happy to listen to, and then I end the meal, a bit earlier than I otherwise would have. With my help, he has succeeded in sitting at the table for the entire meal! The next meal he only tries to get up twice, and soon he’s happily sitting through every meal. I had high expectations, and with my support, he was able to meet them. However, if I had not had the patience to sit him back down every time, or had had a baby in my lap or other duties that prevented me from being able to sit him back down every time, then my expectation for him to sit through the entire meal would have been unrealistic. Does this make sense? Using this model, the difference between high expectations and unrealistic expectations has two components: the child’s capabilities, and my own willingness/ability to help the child live into those capabilities.

High Expectations—For Whom?
So let’s go back now to your question: “Does this mean you just let your child do as much or as little as they feel like that day, and accept that they’re not ‘able’ to do it some days?” My answer is, yes and no. For tasks that are expected, it’s good to have high expectations. For a three- or four- or five-year-old, this means that if a task is expected, then you, as the adult, must be willing to give as much help as is needed in order for the child to accomplish the task.

This is where it comes in handy to remember that just because a child is capable of doing something doesn’t mean that she’ll be ABLE to do it on a consistent basis. Not to use this as an excuse to let them wander off, but as a reminder to you, the adult, that sometimes they can do it on their own, and other times they need your help and your support to get through it. It is a reminder to you not to get annoyed when your child needs help. It is a reminder that children need our help to follow through on tasks, even when they’re capable of doing them. If your expectations are high, this means that you will be helping your child follow through with her tasks fairly frequently. If your expectations are high, you will help her follow through EVERY TIME you ask her to do that task. So really, having high expectations of your child means that you must have high expectations of yourself, as well.

Avoiding Power Struggles
But what about power struggles? I mentioned in my last post, about chores, that it’s important not to get into power struggles over expected tasks. How does this mesh with what I said above, about following through every time, about doing as much as is needed to get your child to follow through? Well, this is where parenting, or caring for children, becomes an Art Form. I said in that post, and I’ll say it again, that getting into power struggles only gives a child practice in saying “No” to you, and that forcing a child to do something doesn’t make him more likely to want to do it the next time you ask him to. So how do we give children “as much help as they need” to follow through, if they’re refusing to do it? We do it through humor (tickling, acting silly, telling a joke or saying things that rhyme). We do it through distraction (talk about something else, then help them do the task without talking about it). We do it through imagination (become a mama squirrel who is looking for acorns to bury for the cold winter, and ask your child to scrape her ‘acorn’ scraps into the compost bucket). Do it through steadfastness (matter-of-factly helping them as many times as it takes). Do it through love (give them a big hug, or snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, and then try again). Just do it.

When to Give In
But doing all of those things takes so much energy! We are so exhausted! We have other children who also need our attention, and we can’t spend all of our time cajoling this one child and jollying her along!

I hear those complaints, and my main response is, Yes, but it’s Worth It. By using these tools to change ‘no’ into ‘yes,’ we create an atmosphere where the children become accustomed to doing what we ask them to. When they know in their bones that when we ask them to do something, we will help them until that thing gets done, it makes saying ‘yes’ a habit. It makes them want to do it more often. Putting the work in now makes everything easier down the road.

However, there are two times when I do suggest “giving in.” The first is when the child is truly unable to do the task. This can happen when she’s too tired, and sometimes for other reasons that we can’t figure out, but we can tell that if we continue, a melt-down will occur. In that case, create the image of them being able to do it the next time, give them some love, and change your plans. The other time to “give in” is when you have to, because you have no energy to help them follow through. Your imagination, humor, and powers of distraction are at an all-time low. Hopefully this happens very rarely. But when you see it in yourself, realize that what is normally a high expectation has jumped up a level, and become an unrealistic expectation. Adjust accordingly, as soon as you realize that’s where you are: “Come on, let’s make your lunch for preschool.” “No!” “Gracious. Normally we do it together. But today I’ll do it myself. You can help again another day.” Realize what expectations are unrealistic for you, and back down for now, knowing that you are building up the strength and the capacity to help your child consistently, with ever-more-complex tasks. The two of you are growing together.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. I liked this – and the part about needing to help the kids helped me understand what my child is asking for and knowing it’s just what she needs at her developmental stage. Often times when I ask Lili to put away or pick up something, she says, “I want someone to help me”. (I’m the only other someone in the house :-)). I thought this was really her way of getting me to pick up the item(s) myself, and maybe sometimes it is. Usually I say in an easygoing way, “sure, I’ll help you”. And if I move slowly enough (was I being spacious without knowing it??), she’ll help me.

    Tonight she threw the slippers by the door into the middle of the kitchen floor while I was washing dishes. She didn’t want to help with that. Let’s see.. what kind of animal washes dishes..?? Anyway, I told her that we might not have time for dessert if I had to do all the cleaning up myself. Was this ‘bad mommy’ behaviour? Will therapy be necessary to un-teach her what I taught her tonight (tongue in cheek but kinda really)?

    • I meant to say in the slippers story that I asked her to put them back by the door and she said she wanted me to do it. That’s when I threatened no dessert. Hopefully this makes sense.

      • Kim, in general I try to avoid both threats and rewards, but some days I do better than others. The good news is that kids are really resilient, and even though we all have many moments when we’re not at our best, our kids still grow up to be competent and caring adults.

        And of course the gift (and curse) of having/caring for children is that they will give us many more opportunities to try again.

        As for next time, instead of trying for Imagination (what animal washes the dishes?) you could try to go for Love instead. “Hey, why are you throwing your slippers? Let me give you a hug and see if that helps.” Wipe your hands, give her a hug, and then say, “There, does that feel better?” If needed, take her by the hand and lead her to those slippers again. Likely she’ll be ready by then.

        Obviously this takes time and energy on your part; if you’re not up for it, then your expectations were too high, in that moment! But if you can manage it, I think it’s worth it to help kids follow through on what you’ve asked. Remember, you’re working on establishing that Habit of Yes.

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