Expectations: a help or a hindrance?

It is that time – that once every four years time where dreams are made or shattered – the Olympics.

I confess to being a sucker for watching some of the coverage. It is so damn emotional though. One minute I’m punching the air and the next I have tears rolling down my face — and I’m sitting on a couch on the other side of the world!

Setting lofty goals and dreams is seen as noble and positive. To be successful you must set high expectations and you must train incredibly hard, but for so many dreams are not realised.

At the Olympics you are also competing for your country so failure can cut even more deeply, as sports psychologist Gayelene Clews explores.

Expectations are really interesting things when you think about them. Quite often we are not even conscious of having expectations and yet we behave in accordance with them because they become beliefs or mindsets.

Having high, positive expectations absolutely influences performance and, in our schools, learning outcomes.

Professor Chris Sarra of the Stronger, Smarter Institute writes passionately about the incredible importance of high expectations in improving educational outcomes for Indigenous students.

In our homes, the same applies. If a well-meaning family member says something like ‘oh John is just like his dad and he struggled at school so John will too’ they are expressing a low expectation and contributing to creating a low outcome for poor John.

I met a family where both parents were elite athletes and one of their children had no athletic skills or interest and this lad struggled with a strong sense of failure despite being a very capable musician. He believed this was not something valued by his parents.

When this conflict of expectations is not resolved with honest communication it can have tragic consequences in those sensitive adolescent years. The film Dead Poet’s Society and even the TV series Barracuda explore the theme of unrealised parental expectations.

Having clear expectations that are positive and optimistic is important but they also need to be age-appropriate.

Expecting a four-year-old boy to be capable of getting out of bed, eating his breakfast, getting dressed, doing his teeth, combing his hair, making his bed and cleaning his room before kindy may simply be unrealistic.

Another unrealistic expectation we often have for toddlers is that we want them to sit still. Yet, toddlers are biologically wired to be active and explore the world with all their senses.

It can also be tricky for young children who are tall or big for their age. People often have unrealistic expectations because they think the child is older than they are.

Children who have special needs can also get disapproving looks in public when they struggle with a sensory overload because they may look like a badly behaved child rather than a child who is seriously struggling. Someone who lives or works with a child with special needs however would likely have a different reaction because their expectations would differ.

Another area of unrealistic expectations I have witnessed in my work is that of creating a really happy family.

I’ve had mums express deep disappointment when they’ve experienced conflict in challenging moments with their children. Because they experienced unsettling and unpleasant experiences in their own childhoods, these mums had planned and expected to create (unrealistic) ‘perfect’ families where there was never a cross word spoken, nor a door slammed.

Humans and human behaviour are incredibly unpredictable and when you put young children into the mix, with their undeveloped prefrontal cortex, a lousy night’s sleep, a sore tummy or a new tooth about to emerge, there will never be a perfectly happy child in that situation.

If you have teens – you may often mistakenly think because they’re older they can listen, remember and be mindful of all sorts of things like body odour, neat hair, sensible clothing choices, using manners and speaking respectfully.

However, often the incredible changes hormonally, physically and in their brains make these things difficult to achieve when aged 13-15. As parents it is important to stay optimistic and hold those expectations because in time they can be realised.

There is no question that as humans, it is important we have high, positive expectations but we need to temper them with realism. Being realistic can help moderate our expectations just a little as we traverse this unpredictable terrain of parenting.

So maybe ponder what expectations you are holding for your kids – are they helping or hindering your child’s growth and development?

To be helping they need to be high, positive and realistic and you need be open to changing them.

I have absolutely high expectations that until it ends on Sunday, I will continue to be excited and saddened while watching the Olympics as I watch dreams made or shattered. Regardless of the outcome, I offer a huge thumbs-up to every athlete from every country participating, for striving to be the best expression of themselves.