Understanding the Difference Between Expectations and Standards with Kids

expectations vs. standards with kids"
expectations vs. standards with kids
Source: Olya Kobruseva / Pexels
Source: Olya Kobruseva / Pexels

I don’t often like to admit when my husband is correct (just ask him), but last summer he said something that really stuck with me. It was after we decided to take a trip to a mall around an hour and a half away from us. While this might not seem like a big deal, it was for us. First, because it was still during one of the pandemic lockdowns and we were barely going out. Second, more than 20 minutes in the car with a toddler is always touch-and-go.

In my head, I had our day planned between all the stores we wanted to go to (both for myself and my daughter) and safely stopping for lunch and snacks. It was going to be perfect.

I was so wrong. The day went terribly, in my opinion. Not only was my 3-year-old a complete nightmare, but she barely let me go into any stores. Instead, most of the day was spent fighting with her. Everything I had planned in my head was moot.

When I told my husband, he said to me, “You can’t always have such high expectations.”

This really stuck with me and got me thinking. Did I expect too much from my toddler on this particular day? Or do I hold my daughter to too high a standard when it comes to her behavior?


Defining Standards and Expectations

A good example of the difference in standards and expectations as a parent comes from Dr. Robin Hornstein, psychologist and cofounder of Hornstein, Platt and Associates LLC. “If your child empties the dishwasher, your standard may be they put away everything they remove from the dishwasher, and it is all put away. An expectation is that your child’s job is the dishwasher, and they will attempt it, even if there are things they leave out if they cannot reach the cabinet or they don’t know where it goes. One would be expecting they attend to their chore, while not defining the success of the attempt.”

Meet the expert
Dr. Robin Hornstein
Psychologist and Cofounder of Hornstein, Platt, and Associates


While similar, standards and expectations are different.

Standards influence how we live our lives and can be thought of as values that guide our behaviors, such as valuing education, kindness, and helpfulness,” says Dr. Kristi Phillips, a psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Child and Family Therapy Clinic. Expectations are what we anticipate of others, including behaviors that reflect these important family values. For example, if parents value education, they may expect their child to study and do well in school.”

Meet the expert
Dr. Kristi Phillips
Psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute Child and Family Therapy Clinic

As parents, it’s our job to encourage our children. We want to see the best in them and help them achieve everything that is within their reach. But, while it is important to encourage our children, it’s often best to be realistic. That’s where the difference between standards and expectations really stands out.


Creating Reasonable Standards and Expectations

Dr. Phillips says that standards influence what behaviors parents want to teach their children, and those standards for their kids can lead to expectations that are attainable or unattainable, which can affect both parenting practices and a child’s emotional growth.

“For instance, a parent may believe that their child is an advanced learner and expect their child to earn straight A’s. This may not be an attainable expectation.” When expectations are not met, children and parents can become frustrated and anxious. As Dr. Phillips pointed out, to avoid this, it is important for parents to have more reasonable standards of wanting their child to do their best, with the expectation that effort is put forth to complete classwork and turn in homework, rather than expecting their child to earn a specific grade.

As with any type of parenting, parents need to be on the same page when it comes to teaching their children. If parents are not on the same page when it comes to standards or expectations for their children, it can lead to confusion.


child cleaning

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“It is best to decide as a parent and as parents together what are the standards and expectations and how they get communicated, adjusted as kids age, and how differences in parents play out here,” said Dr. Hornstein. “I think kids will often also scrutinize your follow-through on similar expectations and standards, so it is best to hold community standards fairly among family members, even if the ages dictate the abilities of each child. We want to set good examples for kids, and we don’t want perfection as the standard ever, as it sets everyone up for failure.”


The Benefits of Standards and Expectations

These days there is a lot of talk about different parenting styles (gentle parenting, helicopter parenting, lawnmower parenting, permissive parenting, authoritative parenting, uninvolved parenting, etc.). Personally, I don’t think I fit into one box, but when it comes to holding certain standards or expectations for my daughter, it turns out, that can be beneficial for her.

“Expectations allow kids and parents to strive for goals they can accomplish to support ongoing growth and develop,” said Dr. Phillips. “Attainable expectations or goals allow children to feel successful, and they have a positive influence on motivation and self-esteem.” Of course, if expectations or goals are set too high, kids may feel defeated, anxious, or overwhelmed, which negatively influences their self-esteem and motivation,” Dr. Phillips said.


Attainable expectations or goals allow children to feel successful, and they have a positive influence on motivation and self-esteem.


Parents should feel encouraged to talk with their children about their expectations. Involving your child is an important step toward making them feel just as included in their development, not as though you as the parent, call all the shots. Not only does speaking with them about your standards of expectations of them make them feel heard, but it makes them feel seen.

While I realize it’s a bit of a stretch for a 3-year-old, when my daughter does not behave the way I expect her to, I speak with her one-on-one. As silly as it may sound, I make her aware of her own behavior and let her know that she is in control of it. Whether or not she “lives up” to my standards or expectations is entirely up to her. And either way, I’m okay with that.

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