Why Can't Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?
Parents expect way too much from their kids.
Because parents love their children and want the best for them, they worry about them a lot, and one of the things that parents worry about most is whether their children are hitting age-appropriate targets for behavior. Shouldn't a child be toilet trained by the age of 4? Should a 10-year-old to be able to sit down and do an hour of homework? One reason why such questions produce so much conflict and woe in the home is that parents' expectations for their children's behavior tend to be too high. I'm not talking about permissiveness or strictness here; I'm talking about accurately estimating children's actual abilities. A reliable body of research shows that we expect our children to do things they're not yet able to do and that we judge and punish them according to that expectation.
Overly simple age-targeting is one main culprit. We all know that children develop differently, but it's natural to underestimate the astonishing variability among and within individuals. A child may be the first in her class to ride a two-wheeler but the last to learn to read; she may also grasp addition and subtraction well ahead of others but lag behind in achieving the self-control to short-circuit a tantrum. We also tend to parent subjectively, setting the behavior bar with a too-small sample group drawn from personal experience: our own first child, a neighbor's child, or our own unreliable childhood memories of how our parents raised us. (If you do want to compare a child constructively with others of the same age, the University of Michigan Medical Center's Web site offers a useful listing of developmental milestones.)
Our expectations of our children's psychological abilities, even more than of their physical abilities, are typically much too high. The research shows that we consistently overestimate their self-control, ability to persevere and stay on task, consistency of performance, and social ability. It's normal for a 2-year-old to get bent out of shape if he doesn't get something he wants; it's normal for a 3-year-old to lose it if there's an unexpected change in the bedtime routine; it's normal for a 6-year-old to fail to sustain focus on a baseball game, to pursue one fly ball with steely purpose and to let the next fall untouched in the grass because he's daydreaming. We know this, and we know that each of these developmental stages will probably pass in a few months' time, but, still, we stand over the child with index finger raised, an unpleasant edge in our voice, futilely repeating: "I said you'd get it later," or "Why are you making such a big deal about your bedtime story?" or "Get your head in the game!"
Necessity feeds this habit, and so does the human tendency to see the world according to personal priorities. If your work schedule obliges you to put your 3-year-old in preschool for 10 hours a day, you'll expect her to function peacefully there whether or not she's capable of it, and your own sense of sacrificing for the good of the family will encourage you to regard that expectation as reasonable. "I work and slave all day for your benefit, and all you have to do is play nicely with the other kids. So stop hitting them, or I'll have to spank you."
Frequently, we want something very simple from kids, like peace and quiet. Is that too much to ask for? Sometimes, it is. Come nap time, you may be thinking, "OK, I fed you, I changed you, I tucked you into your crib with your special blanket and teddy bear, I even bought this expensive mobile to hang over you. You're not teething—I checked. Everything's perfect. Children your age are supposed to take a nap. Your nap is scheduled for right now, and I have a phone call to make in nine minutes. Go to sleep right now!" If your child could articulate what's happening to him, he might respond, "I love the mobile, but my bones are growing like bamboo at the moment, and it hurts. I think I'll stay up and cry instead."
When a child doesn't perform according to expectations, the parent's stress level rises. Changes occur in the parent's behavior—extra doses of impatient body English and insistent harshness in the voice, for instance—which become setting events for deviant behavior by the child. When you bear down harder, in other words, you increase the likelihood that your child will escape and avoid your authority, which will inspire you to bear down even harder, and so on. The spiral of escalation twists up and up, sometimes to the point that a parent loses it and ends up doing something normally unthinkable—slapping small children, for instance, for failing to nap when they're supposed to.
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.