He should be able to pack his bag on his own.
She should know not to jump on the couch.
I shouldn’t have to tell him to get dressed in the morning.
We change over readers every day, she should just do it when she comes into class.
He should know better than to throw things when he is angry.
Do these comments sound familiar?
I think parents and teachers everywhere can relate to the frustration of having a child that just won’t do what we think they are capable of doing. But why aren’t they consistent with what they can do? And why does it bother us so much?
While it is important to have expectations of our kids, to challenge them and teach them to be responsible and independent as they get older, we seem to be in a hurry for children to grow up and do things for themselves. Then we become upset or disappointed when they don’t meet our expectations.
Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some skills where we seem to be more open to accepting mistakes and setbacks. Toilet training is one of these skills. When a child is learning to use the toilet, we expect that there are going to be accidents while they learn to recognise the signs that they need to go, and get to the toilet on time, as well as mastering associated skills such as being able to pull their pants up and down and using the tap to wash their hands. We even expect that after they are reliably trained, there might still be the occasional accident, and that’s alright.
Why, then, do we not expect children to make mistakes and have setbacks with their other skills and behavior? And why do we often view those setbacks as deliberate actions rather than unintentional errors? Just because a child has shown us they can do something, doesn’t mean that they can do it successfully all the time.
When we get caught up in what a child should be doing, we lose sight of what they are telling us they need. Instead of becoming frustrated, we can be curious about what we can do to help a child succeed. We can still encourage a child to do things for themselves, and ask them to complete tasks independently, but not keep expecting them to do something because we think they should be able to do it, especially when they consistently struggle.
Being more flexible with our expectations of what our children can do on any given day, and focusing on how to help them rather than on what they should be doing, doesn’t just help our children, it gives us permission to do what we need to do to make things easier for everyone instead of feeling the need to teach a lesson or prove a point. For example, if you are encouraging your child to be independent in getting dressed for school and you know they have the skills to do it, but they are always getting distracted in the mornings and making everyone late for school, you could put aside a few minutes to be with them and help them get dressed quickly instead of getting frustrated with them every day for taking too long. This will help your child succeed in completing the task and relieve your frustration in them not getting it done quickly, making for a much calmer morning for everyone.
Here are my tips for letting go of the ‘shoulds’ and helping our children do the best they can:
Meet them where they are.
We know all children are different, but it is difficult not to compare when siblings and classmates are doing things that your child is not. Unfortunately, when we compare a child with others, we may develop expectations that are out of reach for an individual child. It is important to consider what skills your child has and what they can do right now, and use that as a starting point for further development. Supporting your child’s independence within their current capabilities helps build confidence, then you can support them to develop the skills necessary to continue to achieve.
Identify barriers to learning.
There are many factors that can impact on a child’s ability to acquire skills and be more independent as they grow. For children with diagnosed disabilities such as Autism and ADHD, common areas of difficulty are widely known and understood, and are more likely to be considered when forming expectations of behavior. However, typically developing children can have similar difficulties that may not be identified or acknowledged, leading to our expectations of behavior being unreasonable. Problems with executive functioning, emotional regulation, memory and sensory processing can all affect a child’s ability to complete tasks and manage their behavior appropriately. If we are aware of these difficulties, we can support children to overcome or accommodate them effectively.
Consider what is required for success.
How much help is too much? As adults we sometimes need help with tasks that we can usually complete on our own, and children are no different. When children show us they can do something on their own, like getting dressed, we are often then reluctant to give help because they should be able to continue doing it on their own. But there are many things that may impact a child’s ability to do things on any given day including tiredness, disinterest, illness, and distraction. Being aware of what assistance your child may need and putting these things in place, whether it be visual schedules, lists, rewards charts or physical assistance, and being willing to give more help when required, will support your child to develop their skills and be successful in their efforts.
Remember that children usually want to do the right thing.
It is my experience that children overwhelmingly have good hearts, and really do want to do the right thing, but they are not always good at making the right choices or controlling their behavior when they need to. For parents, this poor decision making or lack or impulse control can be easily interpreted as a child deliberately ignoring instructions or trying to upset you. However, children are more often concerned with their own needs instead and may not be able to consider their actions until it is too late. When we take a child’s behavior personally, we are bound to be disappointed and frustrated when they do not meet our expectations, and our children in turn may feel that they can never do anything right.
Accepting that our children will have setbacks and make mistakes, being there to support them when they do, and helping them find ways to do things better, does not mean that we don’t encourage them to develop independence and responsibility. It means that we adjust our expectations and acknowledge they are human and wonderfully imperfect just like us.