By Michele Borba

What parent doesn’t hope their kids achieve and do well in life? But how do you know when you’re pushing your kids too much? How do you tell when your expectations are unrealistic or just plain not right for your children? A big secret of good parenting is to know how to set expectations that gently stretch your children’s abilities without snapping their spirits.

Hundreds of child development studies confirm that the right parental expectations can boost children’s self-esteem, social competence, emotional intelligence, and academic success. But the opposite is true as well. Expectations that are not tailored to a child’s potential can rob self-esteem and lower success potential. To make sure your expectations are ones that stretch your children’s potential without unintentionally zapping their self-worth ask yourself these four crucial questions:

  • Developmentally Appropriate. Is my child developmentally ready for the tasks I’m requiring or am I pushing him beyond his internal timetable? Learn what’s appropriate for your child’s age, but still keep in mind that developmental guidelines are not etched in stone. It’s always best to start from where your child is now and then gently stretch one step more. Don’t compare your kid to siblings, neighbors, cousins or classmates. The true secret of good parenting is to always tailor your parenting to your child’s strengths, developmental level, learning styles and needs. 
  • Realistic. Is my expectation fair and reasonable, or am I expecting too much? Realistic expectations stretch kids to aim higher, without pushing them beyond their capabilities. Be careful of setting too high of standards. Putting your child in situations that are too difficult, puts him in the risk of failing and lowering his feelings of competence.
  • Child Oriented. Is what I’m expecting something my child wants, or is it something I want more for myself? We all want our kids to be successful, but we have to constantly be wary of setting goals for our kids that are our dreams, and not those of our kids.
  • Success Oriented. Am I sending the kind of expectations that tell my child I believe he’s responsible, reliable, and worthy? Effective expectations encourage kids to be their best, so that they can develop a solid belief in themselves. Is that accelerated class too hard? Is the soccer coach too demanding? Are you too critical of his grades? Is that clique you’ve encouraged your kid to join too upscale? Talk to your spouse, the teacher, or your best friend to help you score yourself.

Now consider your own list of expectations for your child. Just what are you expecting your son or daughter to be capable of doing right now? Chores. Homework. Manners. Sports. Practice schedules. Nighttime routines. You might even make a list of your parenting expectations over the next few days to make sure you’re not overlooking (or underestimating) all that you are requiring.

Here is one simple solution to check whether your expectations are right: Pick up a good strong rubber band and hold it at both ends with two hands. (Or at least visualize doing this). For everything that doesn’t appear to be a good fit right now (like you expect him to be a great defensive cornerback and he’s more into playing chess), pull the band more tightly. For everything that seems more natural (like your daughter love to sing so you’ve just bought her a guitar), let the band relax a little. If the band gets so tight it’s in danger of snapping, you and your kid are in trouble. Your goal is set your expectations to who your kid really is and capable of becoming.

Remember:: Always remain sensitive to your kid’s needs. Never stop checking for overload. A sudden change in your child’s behavior usually is a big clue that your expectations and his capabilities aren’t matched. If so take action to provide the remedy: Find a better class. Take a soccer break. Back off from stressing over grade point average. Let your child choose his own friends.

And above all: Don’t get so wrapped up in your hopes and dreams for your child’s future that you lose sight of what matters in most the here and now. After all, what could be more important than your child knowing that you love and cherish him for who he is—not for what you want him to be and how you hope he will become?

For daily parenting solutions you can follow Michele on twitter @micheleborba

Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 23 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.