Parenting Expectations: Setting the Right Tone

With Dato’ Dr Andrew Mohanraj, Consultant Psychiatrist and Deputy President of Malaysian Mental Health Association; Ms Loh Sit Fong, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, En. Hairil Fadzly Bin Md. Akir, Deputy Director- General (Policy) of the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, Secretary-General of Asia Pacific Paediatric Association.

It’s only natural for parents to have dreams and hopes for their child, perhaps even before he is born, but beware! If your dreams turn into expectations which are unrealistic, you may start to focus too much on perfection. This would impact your child, causing him to feel like a failure, especially if he is not able to live up to your expectations.

On the other hand, having low or no expectations is also detrimental as it could lead to the child lacking a sense of purpose and direction in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children be provided with goals that give them purpose and direction. Lacking this, the child may grow to become an unmotivated individual.

Consultant psychiatrist, Dr Andrew Mohanraj, agrees with the AAP, stating “Parents have to learn how to temper their expectations. Most importantly, their expectations should take into account four main factors, namely the child’s age, maturity level, physical or mental limitations, and the parent’s own limitations.”

Nodding in agreement, Ms Loh Sit Fong, a consultant clinical psychologist, says “If you find out more about child development, you are more likely to develop age-appropriate expectations for your child. This is desirable as it would avoid unnecessary disciplining or punishments, which may lead to souring the parent-child bond.”

“If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed”
~ Terrel Owens

Getting it Right

AAP recommends setting realistic expectations, neither too low nor too high, as it is a critical part of helping your child to develop a healthy dose of competence and self-worth. Realistic expectations work by encouraging and allowing him to perform at his optimum level, without placing undue pressure on him.

“This provides him with a sense of security and trust, which helps improve the parent-child bond. It also helps develop independence and responsibility. Another aspect to consider is for parents to have the grace to accept and acknowledge any mistakes they may make along the way, which serves as a good life-lesson for your child as well,” states Dr Andrew, who is also the Deputy President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association.

En. Hairil Fadzly Bin Md. Akir, Deputy Director-General (Policy) of the National Population and Family Development Board (Lembaga Penduduk dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara, LPPKN) adds, “Never underestimate the importance of coming to a mutual understanding between your child and yourself. This means that parents need to communicate effectively with their children.”

There is no easy hack for this, as parents have to find out what their child’s strengths are. In doing so, they will be better able to create an environment which encourages and nurtures their gifts. For instance, if you have expectations for your child to be a piano or violin prodigy but he is tone-deaf, this would be a recipe for disaster.

“Other traits such as responsibility and work ethic are often much more critical in determining his future success as an adult, so set expectations that are balanced, i.e. not focused solely on one particular talent but also include other life skills. Remember that your expectations can, and should, be reassessed from time to time. This allows your expectations to be flexible and realistic,” remarks Ms Loh.

Patience is a Virtue

“In dealing with your child, you may find times when your patience is sorely tested. Remember to keep your cool. There are many techniques you can use, such as taking deep breaths to calm yourself, counting slowly to ten (or higher), or even taking a time-out,” suggests Dr Andrew.

He also advises “Don’t neglect working on both the connection and communication between you and your spouse. Nothing is worse than each parent having differing expectations, especially if one conflicts with the other. This would not only confuse your child, it would be a major source of frustration, which is bad for his mental health.”

Sabotaging Your Own Expectations

Ms Loh, a member of the Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology, cautions, “It’s possible for well-meaning parents to sabotage their own expectations; this can happen if you make it a habit to make comparisons with his siblings, cousins, or other people’s children. Similarly, criticising his abilities, temperament, or character would also lead to an undesirable outcome in the future.”

She advised parents to focus corrective measures on children’s undesirable behaviours, instead of making it personal or generalising. Other common mistakes made by parents are demanding or expecting conformity among their children (remember, every child is unique and different) and bringing up past mistakes repeatedly.

En. Hairil emphasised the importance of the parent-child bond. He stressed that while children should be grateful for what parents give them, being a parent also means putting children’s needs ahead of their own. For example, spending time watching a movie with your child may qualify as quantity time but is certainly not quality time. Just having your presence is not enough as they need your attention too.

The father of five also pointed out that children are always observing, even when you think they are not, so it does matter how parents treat or interact with each other or with other people. Never underestimate the power of a parental role model, as actions speak louder than words.

“The old-school method of raising children by telling them to “Do what I say, not what I do” no longer applies, as children learn by modelling and parents are the closest role model. Additionally, telling him to do one thing while you do another undermines your authority,” states En. Hairil.

Children’s Voices Should be Heard

You may also find it necessary to negotiate your expectations with your child (especially with older children). En. Hairil suggests, “Have the negotiation process in a conducive setting and do it in an informal manner. It is important to set expectations based on mutual agreement to minimise stress and pressure.”

Depending on your child’s capabilities, you may have to break your expectations into phases, i.e. set one goal for him at a time. Some children will be happier and more motivated to strive for the best, especially when they see their accomplishment progressing.

“A lot of parents will do anything for their kids, except let them be themselves”
~ Parenting Quotes: Banksy

Avoid Going Overboard

Some parents may exacerbate matters by denying their child the option of having a choice. While it is fine to give them what you were denied as a child, ‘living’ your child’s life is not the way to do it. Ms Loh points out that some of the other signs which show you are going overboard include:

Doing everything for your child – this may be you if your child is already in primary school and you are still tying his shoelaces, washing up after he eats, picking up after him, doing his homework for him, etc.

Overindulging him with luxuries and privileges – holding extravagant birthday parties, letting him have the latest smartphone (and getting him a replacement each time he loses it), etc.

“Most parents also try to shield their child from harm. However, not allowing him to handle his own conflicts or learn from his mistakes, can prevent him from being able to learn how to do so when he is an adult,” highlights Ms Loh.

She advised parents to allow their children opportunities to handle their own problems and resist the urge to jump in to intervene straight away, unless of course it is something that may threaten his safety or life.

“Let him know that you are there for him, but give him the autonomy to handle it on his own,” adds Dr Andrew.

Parental Roles Evolve

Having set routines do provide children with a sense of security and stability. However, parents may be the ones who inadvertently bump against the realities of life. Parents with toddlers on the brink of going to school will need to make adjustments, not just in their schedule, but also in their mindset.

Your little toddler’s days as a carefree child will be over soon, and somewhere over the horizon looms new experiences, new friends, facing teen angst, learning to drive, finding a college or university, and then before you know it, he will be getting married!

Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, Secretary General of Asia Pacific Paediatric Association (APPA) & Chairman of Positive Parenting Management Committee, advises “Be prepared for change, and more importantly, be prepared to re-reevaluate your expectations as your child grows and matures. In the initial stages, parents have a lot of responsibilities to shoulder. However, as your child grows, you have to gradually pass the reins over to him. This transition can be disconcerting, especially if you continually find yourself thinking of him as your little baby.”

The main points that Datuk Dr Zulkifli wants to highlight are:

  1. Understand and accept that your relationship has to adapt – as your child grows, he will move past certain stages so don’t get left behind.
  2. Avoid treating him like a little boy/girl if he/she isn’t one – nothing is more embarrassing to a teen than having mom or dad fuss over him/her (especially in front of their friends).
  3. Know when to let go – fearing for your child as he grows and matures into an adult is normal but there will come a point when you will have to let go and allow him to live his own life.

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