Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BEGINNINGS Chapter 3: Boundaries and Expectations

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.
Henry David Thoreau

"The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Don't lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality.
Ralph Marston

"Sometimes it is more important to discover what one cannot do than what one can do."
Lin Yutang

While the above quotes may seem somewhat at odds with the last quote, they really do go together well.  Recently I heard someone say that the worst thing you could tell a child was that s/he could do or be anything.  That simply is not true.  We must learn appropriate but real boundaries and do all we can within those boundaries.  Overtime those boundaries change.  I'm 5'7" and have always been at the very least legally blind in one eye.  Today that eye has in fact been removed because of additional problems.  Playing in the NBA was never an option for me no matter how much I may have wanted it (which luckily I never did).  There is a balance between lowering our expectations of the possible and believing you can achieve the impossible.  Sometimes as in the Serenity Prayer, the real wisdom is in knowing the difference.


Everyone, not just children need boundaries and expectations. Healthy responsible adults and even teens have self-imposed internalized boundaries and expectations. It is your responsibility as a parent to help your children develop and eventually internalize their own boundaries and expectations as well as those required by society in order to help your children remain safe, and be happy, productive members of their community.

This is one of those situations where the extreme on either end is not the best answer. Expectations should not be so high that it is beyond the child’s reasonably ability or so low that they become dependant, incapable, and without any belief in their own abilities. Boundaries should not be so strict that children don’t have an opportunity to learn, explore, and make some mistakes, nor should they be so loose that the child is unsafe, learns that anything goes, or that s/he deserves to get what ever s/he wants.

This becomes even more difficult for the parent when you consider that not all children are the same, and the changing nature of boundaries and expectations as a child matures. If you consider boundaries and expectation as a line with a third of the line on the left being the one extreme and the third on the right being the other extreme, then you really have a third in the middle to safely work within.
One of the most important elements of boundaries and expectations is consistency and staying on message. If a toddler crawls on top of a table. It needs to be clear every time that that is not appropriate and unsafe. S/he needs to be removed from the table every time. The environment needs to be adjusted to make it impossible or at least more difficult to get on the table. Opportunities need to be removed to allow him or her to get on the table, and when s/he is on the table, a clear and discernible, gentle but firm “no” needs to be heard. (Remember, children need to hear “yes” and praise a lot more than they hear no.)

Children love to climb. Provide other ways they can climb safely, see out the window, or fill some of the same needs which are being met by climbing on the table.

Use Child Developmental information to help you better understand what appropriate boundaries and expectations are for children of various ages. Many children’s and young adult programs help provide reasonable expectations for children. Scouting and 4 H are two great examples.


My youngest son was born in late August. This made him one of the youngest children in his classes at school. He also had difficulty with speech and at times was made fun of because of his impediment (something which can be almost as difficult for a parent as the child.) For a time he received speech therapy. He struggled in school and was behind. One teacher even told my wife not to expect as much from him. While he was in scouting he was to memorize something rather short. I worked with him and encouraged him; but he just wasn’t getting it done. I remember speaking with him many years ago and as I write this I glanced at the doorway just a few feet from where I’m typing because that was where the conversation occurred. I told him that I knew he was capable. His response startled me. He asked; ‘why do you say I’m capable, mom doesn’t think I’m capable.’ As soon as I could I had a conversation with my wife, who then had a conversation with our son. Soon after that he completed the memorization. We worked hard with him and all of our children, especially in the area of reading; but also in other academic areas. When this son graduated from high school he had already completed many college courses. At this time he is just about to complete his second semester of actual college and will be within about five credits of being a college junior. He is almost a straight A student. Yes, a lot of that is because of the type of kid he is. He is hard working, gifted and talented. Part of it though is that we believed in him, had high; but not unreasonable expectations of him and we put in the extra effort to help him while demonstrating that we and many others believed he was worth the investment of time.

It’s one thing to say you have expectations and tell someone about boundaries, it is another to invest the time and effort to demonstrate you really believe what you have said.
Here's another great story: Kerrying On - Just a Child


There are many examples of research demonstrating the power of expectations: Teachers told that all the children in a class were given a test and that certain children would bloom and demonstrate higher academic achievement, workers who’s only expectation was that they could be janitors, becoming computer operators and trainers simply because of a different set of expectations and additional training and assistance, children and adults receiving an investment of time, education, and opportunity because someone believed in them.

The key is matching the expectation with the investment of your time, energy and assistance.

Key Words:

Google parenting search engine below, and any major search engine: Child Development; Developmental Milestones; Typical Child Development; Pygmalion Effect; Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Google Scholar below: Children Expectations; Children Boundaries

Supplemental Material:
Children First-40 Developmental Assets: A community project for youth development

1 comment:

Beth said...

This topic is very interesting and important to me. I have a 15 year old, a 14 year old and a one year old. I thought that loose boundaries would be better, not in the sense of children getting hurt. I easily set boundaries for the kids not running in the road and I was extra careful with their safety, but I wanted to be a parent who was not strict, because my mother was. I did not want my children to be scared of me. However as my children got older I learned that being too lenient was not good for them either. Just as you wrote that too loose would make them expect that they deserve things, and they do. So now I know not to do that with my one year old. There is a marked difference between children not fearing you and not respecting you, so I needed to find that right balance in between. What was written here about boundaries that are too loose making children incapable and dependent was so true. Not to say my children are helpless. They certainly aren't but oftentimes they will come to me for things they should be able to handle and because of my love for them I would handle it, not realizing at the time I was not helping them by handling the situation but hurting them. For instance my son has a hard time making important decisions, something that he leans on me for. I want to see him able to do such things for himself. This Chapter really made me realize that everyone can use a parenting course!