Helping Your Kids Set Realistic Expectations

Posted by Idaho Youth Ranch on Jan 19, 2018 12:00:00 AM
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Setting expectations is a very simple--but important--strategy for helping your kids succeed, and the good news is you can start from the time they are toddlers until they are off to college and beyond!

Setting expectations is one of the best ways to building their self-esteem and save yourself a few headaches along the way.

Helping Your Kids Set Realistic Expectations

Imagine arriving at work in the morning only to be handed a surprise list of new assignments for the day. At 10:00 am, your boss stands impatiently outside your office: “Where is my report?” she asks, clearly disappointed that you haven’t tackled this task first--despite there being no indication of priority to the task list. 

Success would be all but impossible to achieve in this situation. Why? Because when expectations aren’t realistic, communicated in advance, and clearly communicated, the chances of success are slim and haphazard--for kids and adults alike. 

Be Realistic

The first key when it comes to kids and expectations is making those expectations realistic based on age, development and circumstances. For example, if you child is sick, he or she may not be capable of behaving in the same way as when he or she is well. It’s not about lowering the bar for success, it’s about setting the bar at a reasonable expectation to begin with. For example, I 5-year-old child will not be able to complete a game of Monopoly, sit quietly for long periods of time, or practice an instrument for several hours. Setting your child up for success means recognizing your child’s limitations based on their age and development (so going to a fancy 2 hour dinner with a 3-year-old probably isn’t the best idea).

Prepare for Success

The next key to success when it comes to setting expectations is communicating those expectations before it’s go-time. Before you go into any situation or start a task with your child, it’s important to talk through your expectations. This doesn’t have to be a drawn-out process--it can be quick and simple! For example, before you go into a grocery store talk to your child about what you expect from their behavior in the store (e.g., that you will not have time to stop at this toy aisle this trip, and that your child will be allowed to choose one type of snack). With older children, it can be very helpful to talk through the morning routine or nighttime routine beforehand or even make a schedule that everyone can see of what things should be accomplished in the morning/evening. Doing this will help head off conflict before a situation becomes stressful in the moment. Something that will help you succeed in setting expectations is asking the kids questions. Before going into the grocery store with younger kids, ask them questions about what they think their behavior should be? For example, “Okay, we need to get a few groceries, what are the don’t-do’s while we are in the store?”

Communicate While Calm

A big part of setting the stage and explaining expectations beforehand is avoiding the stress and heightened emotions that go hand in hand with deadlines and pressure. While asking a child to put shoes on or accompany you to the grocery store might not feel like a high stakes activity or big deal to you, it can feel that way to a two-year-old who sees a dazzling aisle chock full of candy, or who isn’t sure if his or her socks will feel funny in shoes like they did yesterday. Taking the time to get on the same page while everyone is calm and collected helps your child feel mentally prepared. 

Again asking your kids the night before, “What do we need to for school tomorrow? Is it library day or PE day? Do you want to bring your lunch?” Answering those questions in advance will help avoid a stressful morning.

Don’t Make Assumptions

It can be easy to get frustrated when kids don’t comply with your expectations--but before you react, think about whether you’ve communicated your expectations clearly and completely. For example, say you’ve asked your two children to get ready for school in the morning. You sit them down to eat breakfast and let them know that they have 10 minutes before it’s time to leave for school. When you return 10 minutes later, they have finished breakfast but are not ready to walk out the door with backpacks and shoes. Instead of getting frustrated, think about whether you could set a more clear expectation next time. Kids don’t have a solid grasp of time passage yet, so instead of saying “10 minutes,” next time say a specific time, like “8:00.” And instead of assuming that kids know what is implied by “leaving in 10 minutes,” specify that after eating breakfast they need to put on shoes and backpacks. For recurring tasks, clarify these expectations by making an easily visible chart with words or pictures for kids to reference.


Communicating realistic, clear expectations not only sets kids up for success in life--it also models the way they should set expectations with other people, and helps them feel in control and confident of their ability to succeed.

 Help Your Kid Set Realistic Expectations


Interested in what you see here? Idaho Youth Ranch offers parenting classes to help parents develop skills to build and maintain positive relationships with their kids. Join our parenting gurus for this series where you can learn skills, ask questions, and have discussions in a non-judgmental, relaxed environment. Learn more about upcoming parenting classes at

Topics: For Parents, Set for Success