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Expectations: Great Ones and Not So Great Ones

Posted on 09/07/2021, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 7th and 8th Graders, Parents of 9th Graders, Parents of 10th Graders, Parents of 11th Graders, Parents of 12th Graders (0 comments)

The beginning of a new school year is a great time to reflect on your expectations for your teenagers’ academic achievements. In the world of education, conventional wisdom holds that high parental expectations are positively associated with school success, and I tend to agree with that generalization, but tread carefully. Not all expectations are great ones. 

No Gain Without Pain

In the realm of expectations, beware too much of a good thing. We parents can get so caught up in our children’s achievements that we lose sight of what those accomplishments cost. This phenomenon was perfectly captured in a television show about female gymnasts that aired several years ago. While the girls practiced, several mothers lounged on couches in a glass-enclosed viewing room, munching snack food and shouting exhortations to their daughters. Those women exemplify all of us at one time or another, yelling at our kids to SHOOT from the sidelines of a soccer game or calling to them to practice their piano scales for another half hour from the comfort of our recliner. Bottom line: when we remind our kids that there’s no gain without pain, we need to remind ourselves of the same adage.

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

If pushing kids too far is one potential pitfall of parental expectations, pushing them in the wrong direction is another, in my view. Consider the case of one family in which the father was a prominent physician and all ten children became doctors. On the one hand, this is an impressive accomplishment that likely serves as a testimony to the power of high expectations. On the other hand, it raises an obvious question. What are the odds that all ten of those children, left to choose their own professions, would have chosen medicine? There’s no way to know for sure, but it sure seems possible that at least one of those kids was more a victim of parental expectations than beneficiary. Ideally, parents should have high expectations for kids to try their hardest in the arenas they choose for themselves. But don’t expect them to go it alone.

Lend a Hand

A few years ago I presented a workshop on college admissions to parents at the Governor's School for Science and Technology. I made a particular point of highlighting the many competing demands faced by high-achieving teens today and encouraged parents to look for tangible ways to help their kids cope, such as lightening up on household chores. A few weeks later, one of the juniors at the school, an outstanding student and competitive athlete, approached me to offer her heartfelt thanks. She was absolutely thrilled to report that as a result of my talk her parents had excused her from after-dinner kitchen cleanup.

I’ve thought a lot about why that meant so much to her, and my best guess is that it wasn’t only the 15 or 20 precious free minutes she’d gained. I suspect it also conveyed to her, in a very meaningful way, her parents’ understanding of how hard she was working and their willingness to help. So here’s one more resolution for the new school year: do something to make your teenager’s day!

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Posted on 09/07/2021, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)




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