You should expect a lot of your children. Set the bar high on what you value and make it clear to your children that you expect them to live up to those standards. Expectations communicate to your children what you, well, expect of them. They are standards of behavior grounded in your family’s values to which you hold your children in their lives. Expectations act as guides for your children of what they should and shouldn’t do.

Though there is a lot of talk about expectations—all parents I speak to agree that they should place expectations on their children—little thought is given to what precisely expectations are and how they influence children.

By holding your children to certain expectations you are implicitly teaching them the values that underlie them. For example, when you establish an expectation that your children will make their homework a priority over social interests, for example, you communicate the value of responsibility. They can choose to meet the expectations and reap the benefits (e.g., your approval, good grades, increased responsibility and freedom) or fail to fulfill the expectation and accept the consequences (e.g., your disapproval, poor grades, reduced responsibility and freedom).

To maximize the value of expectations on your children:

  • Talk to them about the value underlying the expectation and explain why you believe it is important;
  • Be specific in the expectations and give them examples of how the expectations apply to relevant aspects of their lives; and
  • Encourage them to give their input into the expectation and consider modifying the expectation based on their feedback. The more involvement and agreement they have, the greater ownership they will feel for the expectation.

Consequences

Early in your children’s lives, they won’t understand the inherent value in meeting expectations. Rather, they will or won’t follow them based on the consequences that you attach to the expectations. As they mature and come to understand the meaning of the expectations, they will internalize and follow them because they accept the values as their own. Two mistakes that many parents make are:

  • Not establishing reasonable consequences for the expectations they place on their children; and
  • Not following through consistently on the consequences they do put in place.

The consequences that you should have for the expectations can be emotional (e.g., “If you lie, we will be very disappointed in you”) or explicit (e.g., “If you’re mean to your sister, you’ll have to do a time-out”). These consequences provide your children with the initial impetus to meet your expectations. Though I can’t give you specific consequences that you should have for your children—consequences can be idiosyncratic to your family and each of your children—they should be aversive enough for them to want to adhere to your expectations, but not so severe as to cause them to become angry and resistant.

Here is a hint: consequences that induce boredom or take away something that is desired are usually effective. But knowing your children and creatively putting yourself in their shoes are the best ways to come up with effective consequences. You should also allow your children to earn back with good behavior what was taken from them. This opportunity further instills a sense of ownership of their actions because, just as they chose to violate the expectation, they also have the power to meet the expectation—and reap its benefits—in the future.

Tangible rewards for fulfilling expectations should be avoided because they can turn your children in “reward junkies” who continually raise the reward needed to adhere to your expectations. A key step to ingraining expectations in your children is to help them find the positive consequence within themselves. The best consequence for your children meeting the expectations is the positive emotions that come from doing the right thing. You can help your children make this connection by pointing out the good feelings and connecting them with the good deed.

Inconsistent or nonexistent consequences are the other obstacles to your children living up to your expectations. Due to time pressure, stress, fatigue, or expediency—in other words, life!—the best-laid plans of parents to enforce consequences on expectations can slip through the cracks. But without these consequences, your children have little incentive for following the expectations you have established for them. Without the early impetus from consistently applied consequences, your children will never learn and internalize the underlying lessons of the expectations.

Inconsistent consequences send conflicting messages about expectations to your children. One message is that the expectations are not that important. If they were, you would enforce the consequences consistently. Another message is that, even if they are important, your children don’t need to adhere to them because they won’t get into trouble if they don’t.

There is no magic to following through with consequences. You must make a commitment to the consequences before you establish any expectations (expectations without consequences have no “teeth”). When a situation arises where consequences are required, you must remind yourself of how important they are and, despite fatigue, stress, and other excuses, you must act on them because the consequences are in their best interests. If you are too tired or too busy to impose the consequences on your children, ask your spouse (if you live in a two-parent household) to step in and do what is needed.

A caveat here: If, for whatever reason, you do not follow through on rare occasions, don’t beat yourself up about it. You will not be stunting their development if it occurs infrequently. You’re human and there will be days when you just don’t have the time or energy to follow through. What is important is that, over time, your consistency sends the message to your children that expectations are important and that they can expect to have consequences if they do not fulfill them.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, has work with young people, parents, and educators for more than 27 years. Jim is the author of 14 books, four of which are parenting books. Jim has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Fox News Channel, ABC’s World News This Weekend, and the major television network affiliates around the country. He has participated in many radio shows. Dr. Taylor has been an expert source for articles that have appeared in The London Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Outside, Men’s Health, and many other newspapers and magazines. Jim lives north of San Francisco with his wife, Sarah, and his daughters, Catie and Gracie. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com