Sunday 18 March 2018

Fine-tuning a dad's expectations

We'd all love to see our children grow up to be concert pianists, but a parent's dilemma is how to motivate a child to achieve - without stressing them out too much

Great expectations: Amy Chua advocates parental pressure to ensure a child achieves their potential but evidence suggests that excessive stress is counter-productive. Picture Posed
Great expectations: Amy Chua advocates parental pressure to ensure a child achieves their potential but evidence suggests that excessive stress is counter-productive. Picture Posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

THE pressure that we put on our children to perform and achieve in different areas of their lives has been the recent focus of media attention.

A programme on ITV about the pressure on children today concluded that they may be more prone to depression as a result of being too stressed by the expectations of parents and teachers.

At the same time, a new book by Yale professor Amy Chua, 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' (out February 2), celebrates the level of stress and pressure that she feels we must put on children in order to ensure that they achieve the highest possible standards in everything that they do.

I'll be honest and admit that I have only read reviews of her book because, based on those reviews, I am not sure that I have the stomach to read the book directly. For example, one reviewer commented that she used "an obsessive-bordering-on-abusive level of duress in pursuit of superlative performance" on her two girls.

The programme and the book have left me wondering, therefore, should I have high expectations for my children or not? Am I better to let them find their own way in life or should I dictate (like Amy Chua) to my children what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated?

Research into stress has shown that in order to be motivated to do something, we need a little bit of stress. For example, a deadline for submitting a project can be stressful but encourages us to focus. Indeed, as stress increases, our performance at a task will also improve. However, there is a plateau that is reached whereby any further increase in stress actually gets in the way of performance and so our achievement at a task will drop off if we are too over-wrought.

The 'zone of proximal development' enlightens us as to how children learn and develop most effectively. This zone is the difference between what a child can do already and what they can do with adult help and guidance.

This concept is often used to try to judge how to pitch educational material for children. If the work is pitched at the level where a child can already do it easily, then they may be bored and unmotivated. Similarly, if a task is pitched at a level where they can only achieve it with adult help, some children will give up because it is perceived to be too hard.

Ideally, tasks should fall within their zone of proximal development as this will mean that they are challenged to try it, but it is not so challenging that they will give up or be unable to complete it without help.

The key point here is that children work best and achieve most when they are challenged, but not overwhelmed, by a task.

This means we should always seek balance in the expectations that we set for our children. We do need to have expectations of them and their behaviour, their application to their studies and their participation in sports, music or other extra-curricular activities. It's just that we must be careful to make those expectations realistic and achievable -- but also challenging.

When our children are small, it is important that we make decisions for them. We choose what clothes they wear, what books they read or listen to, what food they eat, what they are allowed to do and not to do. We supply all of their motivation from outside by offering rewards and treats for certain behaviours and by threatening consequences and punishments for other behaviours.

So when they are small, we apply all the pressure to conform, to behave, to eat, to be patient, to do and to stop doing. As they grow up, however, we want them to become independent, so we have to let go of some of our expectations to allow them to develop their own.

For me, this is the heart of parenting. As parents, we need to follow our own development trajectory. We start off using a set of parenting skills that is all about minding, protecting and controlling everything for our children.

As they grow and develop, we too must develop our parenting skills to take account of their need for greater independence and we need to learn to let them go a bit more and to allow them to take greater responsibility for the decisions that affect them.

By the time they are 18, they will need to have internal skills and motivation to make decisions about what they will do (and when), because we won't necessarily be there to apply the pressure to encourage or ensure that they achieve what they are capable of.

What this means is that the pressure we put on them cannot be the only motivator for our children as they grow up. We need them to develop internal motivation, so that they will put appropriate pressure on themselves to achieve what they want in life.

As they grow up, we need to give them enough experience of success by motivating and pressuring them, while simultaneously supporting and helping them to achieve things they may not have believed possible.

We also need to be tolerant of their failure, on occasion, to achieve those very same things.

In response to both the success and failure that our children might experience as a result of the pressure we bring to bear, we need to help them make sense of those feelings. Whether it is the thrill of achievement or the disappointment of failure, our children need our help to understand what is happening to them.

Balancing our expectations of, and for, our children can be difficult. Sometimes we will under- or over-estimate the level of difficulty and our child might struggle too much or not have to struggle at all.

If we expect too much of them and they consistently fail to meet our expectations, then this will damage their self-esteem. It is too easy to believe that you are no good if you feel like you always fall short of others' expectations.

In contrast, if we have no expectations of our children, then they could drift without direction and may miss many opportunities in life.

How we determine the level of pressure and expectation is often a merging of our own experiences of having been parented and our own instincts about what our children need.

If your parents had high expectations of you, then it is quite likely that you will have high expectations of your children. How you choose to enforce the attainment of those expectations is also likely to be influenced by your parents.

If they adopted a harsh and critical approach where your failure to reach the standard was always highlighted, then you will probably do the same. If they encouraged you to strive to meet the challenge, but were understanding if you didn't fully make it, then this is likely to be the approach you will take with your own children.

If your parents had little expectation, then you probably were insulated from a sense of failure -- but you may also have never felt you reached your potential in adult life.

I can remember my father telling me repeatedly, "if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing right". I took this to understand that the perfect completion of a task is all that is acceptable.

Growing up, I tried to use this maxim to get out of doing chores by only half doing them in the hope that if I appeared to not do the job right I wouldn't be asked to do it again.

Unfortunately, I think my parents saw through my not-so-cunning plan. As a consequence I got a lecture about how the job should be done and I got to do it again under supervision to ensure that it met the standard.

This belief that things must be done right has stayed with me all through my adult life, to the point that I have high standards for myself. In fact, I am almost a perfectionist, and if truth be told, I can't abide sloppy or half attempts at jobs. Importantly, in terms of my parenting, I also hold very high standards for my children and their achievement of the things.

Rather than blindly assuming this is a good thing, I constantly have to apply checks and balances to my instinct to push my children hard. I know the theory inside out but I also know I can't afford to simply apply my standard to my children because it is not fair to them.

What I need to do is to try to set a standard for them that meets their needs, not mine. I need them to be in their own zone of proximal development and not mine.

If I can do this, my children will feel a very positive pressure motivating them to move forward, rather than a debilitating stress that will leave them with a taste of failure and an unwillingness to try.

I know I sometimes achieve this with my children. More often, I probably don't. Luckily for them, they also have their mother to balance me out.

The other benefit I have is that over the years I have slowly come to accept that perfection in human endeavour is not possible and that doing a 'good enough' job is, as it says, simply good enough.

I do push my children to achieve what I believe to be possible for them. Only time will tell if it is the right kind of push.

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