One of the most important elements of good parenting is setting expectations. Some parents expect far too much of their children only to exasperate themselves and their children. Other parents expect far too little. I encourage you to constantly evaluate your expectations of your child.
Setting the bar
Many Ezzo parents are proud of the fact that they can expect relatively good behavior from their children. This stems from the fact that we often set the bar quite high. Yet some parents take this too far, setting the bar so high that it’s impossible for their children to reach it. This family finds themselves in constant struggle with children being disciplined regularly for goals that are simply unattainable.
On the other hand, some parents, permissive parents in particular, set the bar too low. They expect very little of their children and achieve exactly that. These parents are often just as frustrated, however, simply because of their children’s excessive misbehavior. The children of permissive parents don’t get off without frustrations of their own. While in their daily lives they escape discipline, they encounter certain situations where the parents decide to crack down. Typically, this is at a friend’s house or some other public location that has left permissive parents feeling so embarrassed they decide to take action. Their poor children don’t see it coming and are confused by the sudden change in the rules.
Find your happy medium between these two extremes. Set your bar high enough that you can expect good behavior and a solid moral conscience, but don’t set it so high that you exasperate yourself or your child.
Childishness vs. defiance
While setting the bar high will help improve your child’s behavior, we must not forget that they sometimes misbehave in innocence. Before disciplining your child, you must stop to think about the intent behind the misbehavior. You must determine whether the behavior was caused by simple childishness or whether the child was being defiant in his actions.
“We use the term childishness to refer to innocent immaturity. This includes those nonmalicious, nonrebellious, accidental mistakes our children make…. Defiance, on the other hand, implies bad motives. The child knew the act was wrong but did it anyway. Childishness is usually a head problem—a lack of knowledge. Defiance is usually a heart problem—the child does not want to do right,” (On Becoming Childwise, p. 132).
Clearly, defiance deserves correction. Childishness, however, must be treated differently. While childish acts can be just as grating on a parent’s nerves, they cannot be treated in the same way. Simply explain to your child why his actions were wrong so you give him the knowledge for next time. If he makes the same mistake again (and if it’s not a true accident), then the act deserves correction. If your child clearly understands your instruction and commits the offense again, the act moves from childishness to defiance.
One final note about setting expectations is to realize that they will—and should—change as your child gets older. Some actions will be treated as childishness with a young child, but the same actions in an older child are defiance. Yes, you must still tell your child what you expect of him, but also at some point he becomes old enough to know better.
Say you struggle with table manners with your toddler. In many ways, his actions (getting food all over his face, choosing to use his hands over utensils, etc.) are childish. But if you saw these same actions in a five-year-old, you would treat them as defiance. An older child has the capacity to use his utensils and keep food in his mouth—not to mention use a napkin—so if he acts like a toddler at the table, his actions must be corrected.
Be aware of this as your child ages and make sure you are moving your expectations and setting the bar higher and higher. And take the time right now to make sure your expectations are in the right place for today. You don’t want to discipline your child excessively nor do you want to set the bar too low. Take the time to figure out where your child’s bar belongs.