Health & Fitness

Parents should set expectations for their kids all year long

Moms and dads by nature want to please their children, often going above and beyond to make sure they’re happy. That can mean relaxing certain rules, like staying up late and allowing longer screen time, or showering them with material objects. Sometimes, especially during the holiday season, that can translate into a lot of stuff.

Zafreen Jaffery, Ed.D., is a research and evaluation analyst for The Children’s Trust.

Thanks to influences from TV, social media and friends, children are constantly exposed to new toys, electronic innovations and apps (endless, endless apps!). So it’s natural for them to wonder: If their best friend has X, why can’t they have X too? Or at least Y and Z.

A parent’s job is to navigate this minefield — not just around the holidays, but all year long — by setting expectations and getting children to understand them. Communicate what’s important to you and you’ll establish a standard toward which your kids can strive. Here’s how:

Be honest. Answer quickly and directly when the answer is “no,” and be sure to provide a reason. If it’s around holiday time, ask your children about their wish lists and discuss what may be possible and what’s not. One solution is to have them make a top 10 or top five list and prioritize each item.

Hit the brakes on keeping up with the Joneses. Children want what others have, especially when someone in their peer group has it. Explain that just because someone else has something, it doesn’t make it a justifiable purchase for your family. Teach kids, too, that some of the most joyous moments and experiences in life do not come from things. If they really want something, encourage them to earn it by squirreling away their allowance or earning pocket money doing extra chores.

Teach the value of giving. We all want our kids to understand the spirit of doing unto others, but that’s not necessarily something that comes naturally. To shift your children’s thinking from themselves to others, make a concerted effort to have them create to-do lists that include acts of kindness, such as visiting an elderly relative or volunteering at a local food bank. This will help them develop a greater sense of responsibility toward family and community.

Focus on experiences. Prepare children in advance for how the holidays or a birthday will go. Let them know they may or may not get the gifts they want, but they can be sure they’ll have a special day with family. Talk about how they’ll get to decorate cookies or spend time with visiting out-of-town relatives. Build on traditions and emphasize the importance of being together, perhaps by going on a hike, decorating the house or baking a cake. When parents are enthusiastic about something, kids follow.

Set goals. Again, communication is key when it comes to children’s expectations. Depending on their age, discuss realistic goals for what you hope they’ll achieve, such as getting straight As or nabbing a spot on a sports team, and have them take ownership of these goals. Every situation won’t be realized, but there will almost always be improvement, which is a success in itself. With this message you’re teaching your children that through hard work, they can make strides and achieve good things.

Ground them in reality. Anticipate mistakes and foresee misbehavior. Parents often overestimate their children’s ability to have self-control and handle social situations well, but it’s normal for 4-year-olds to get upset when they don’t get something they want, just as it is for 12-year-olds to be moody. Making mistakes is part of how kids’ brains develop and it’s the launching ground for further learning.

Hold the line. Children thrive when parents have clear expectations for behavior and enforce those standards consistently. As you begin setting limits and consequences, kids will almost certainly test and protest. Stick with your boundaries, be fair but consistent and empathize with their emotional reactions. Eventually they will understand that unacceptable behavior won’t work — and that you expect better.

Zafreen Jaffery, Ed.D., a research and evaluation analyst for The Children’s Trust, brings more than 16 years’ experience in research, evaluation and teaching to her work, and is passionate about promoting educational equity and social justice for all children. For more information, visit