Realistic expectations help children achieve

August 25, 2006|by LISA PREJEAN

At this time of year, as schools open their doors and welcome students back to the hallways, there's the promise of a brand-new start.

New classrooms, new teachers, new textbooks, a new chance for success.

Expectations are high as students with blank slates, so to speak, eagerly await the chance to show that they can do well.

As parents, we can do our part by holding the bar high, by creating an environment that is conducive to children's achievement and by encouraging them to meet the challenges presented.

Yet we need to be careful that our expectations are realistic. Our children should know that their value to us and to others is not tied to how well they perform.


They should feel valued because of who they are, not because of what they can do.

"We need to do what we can to make them realize that they are valuable as a person," says Thomas S. Greenspon, author of "Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism."

Children need to be told, "I really like you. I feel really blessed because you are in our family. That has nothing to do with how you do in school."

"What's crucial here is to distinguish between the behavior and the child as a person," says Greenspon, a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist. He encourages parents to talk openly with their children about school progress.

If a child seems upset or embarrassed about a grade, talk to the child about his feelings. Assure the child that you want to help.

"It's important to cover two bases," Greenspon says. "Say, 'I've got a concern about this C. I'm not angry with you for making a C, I'm just puzzled about how that might have come about.'

"It's perfectly understandable for an upstanding citizen to get a C," he says.

Some children might think anything short of 100 percent is a bad grade.

If a child seems upset about a grade, Greenspon suggests asking questions and making a few inquiries, such as, "I'm wondering what it means to you to miss a few problems."

Assure the child that he doesn't have to get a perfect grade to be a good student.

"Sometimes those kinds of messages ring true," Greenspon says. "Perfectionistic students do worry about the grade. A lot of people will try to argue a child out of perfectionism."

What that sounds like to the child is another criticism of himself, Greenspon says.

We're in a winner-take-all culture. When we watch the Olympic Games, the story is not about the three best athletes in a particular event, Greenspon notes. It's the gold medalist and the two other ones who didn't win.

Sometimes children become perfectionists to bring order to a family, Greenspon says. A child might think that if he can be outstanding at something, it will make other people notice him. This is especially true in a chaotic home where there is no routine and people's responses are unpredictable, Greenspon says.

The perfectionist tends to do something in an exceptional way. The family begins to notice and starts to be attentive through positive comments or attendance at games, concerts, academic competitions, etc.

The child's hope is that everything will get organized now that the family is doing things together. The ability to perform becomes the child's identity. He might feel, "If I let this go, the family will go back to a chaotic catch-as-catch-can - nobody cares about anybody and nobody's very important."

Then the child begins to think, "The reason people like me is that I perform really well."

By first creating an environment of acceptance and security, parents can then encourage children to do their best and help them avoid being perfectionists, Greenspon says.

Encouragement is different from praise, because praise is based on performance, Greenspon says.

If a child who is used to praise doesn't receive it one day, he feels the parent or the teacher doesn't like him as much.

Parents can make comments such as, "It's really neat how you put so much effort into this."

"You can say that even if they made a B," Greenspon says.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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