Why Can't Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?
Parents expect way too much from their kids.
I know that you feel that you're helping your child set habits now that will last all of her life, and sometimes that's exactly what you're doing, but often, it's not the right model to keep in mind. Yes, when it comes to, say, developing vision and language, childhood habits set the pattern for life, but in a lot of other cases, they don't. Little kids will lie, cheat, and steal, for instance, and still grow up to be scrupulously honest adults. Don't crank up the pressure unnecessarily by making every single one of your child's behaviors into a slippery slope, a domino, or an occasion to draw a line in the sand.
Finally, bear in mind the cholesterol-stroke caveat, or the principle of the U-shaped relation. Most of the time, we think about cause and effect as a linear relation. That's because it often is. If you do X, Y happens. If you do X a lot, Y happens a lot, so more X equals more Y. It works for, say, pressing on the gas to make your car go fast, or drinking alcohol to get drunk, or the correlation between high cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. But some relations are U-shaped. One of them is that between cholesterol and the risk of stroke. People with high or low cholesterol have a higher risk of stroke, and those in the middle have the lowest risk. It can be the same with expectations. Both chaos (not enough expectation: feel free to watch TV and play computer games all day, go to bed when you want to, do or don't do homework and chores as you see fit) and regimentation (too much unreasonable expectation, too little allowance for variability, unrelenting "tough love" that's too heavy on the "tough") can have a similar negative stressing effect on a household and put children at greater risk for problem behavior: tantrums, fighting, and the like. Variations in children's and parents' temperaments can make it hard to give blanket advice, but the trick in each case is to find the individual child's sweet spot, the point between too little and too much expectation.
The good news is that you're the world's leading expert on your child, the one person in creation best equipped to find that sweet spot. Just remember, as you go about it, that it's only human for parents to tend to expect that our children can do more than they can really do. Even slight adjustments of your expectations to compensate for that tendency—a little more emphasis on shaping, a little more patience, a little reflection on what's really important to you as a parent and what behaviors can be left to disappear or develop on their own—can produce surprisingly excellent results.
Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.