Should-ing on Our Kids

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It’s one thing to have high expectations of our children, but quite another to apply standards at odds with their development, temperament, and cognitive capacity.

“Should” is a Four-letter Word

In therapy, certain words and phrases take on special meaning and have added weight. In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the word “should” is often eyed with suspicion. “Should” often stands for dissatisfaction if not outrage at a reality that fails to live up to our expectations. The s-word can be used inwardly when we expect more of ourselves than we’re able to deliver. The ever-salty Albert Ellis is famous for saying “stop should-ing on yourself.”

As if the damage we do should-ing on ourselves isn’t bad enough, I find that nearly all parents — myself included — “should” on our kids. Because we’re entrusted with their care and development, it seems almost inevitable that we should have some “shoulds” for them.

Doctors and Lawyers

To be a parent is to have hopes and dreams for our kids. We often imagine them in prestigious, lucrative professions. Perhaps there is also a family legacy that we would like to be carried forward. Explicitly or implicitly, the far-future expectations trickle down to mundane daily activities. “You’ll never get into med school if you don’t study harder than that!”

When the bar is set high, pressure for young people to compete and excel balloons. We may all poke fun at parents who groom their toddlers for admission to the most prestigious preschools, but find me the parent who can admit their child is below average, even though, by definition, 50 percent of them must fall below the average.

News Flash: Children are Immature

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Exasperated parents say “you’re so immature,” or “can’t you be more mature?” This is usually voiced as a complaint if not an outright indictment, but if we stop and answer the actual question, often the honest answer is “no.”

Projection is a mental shortcut we all take regularly. When we try to understand someone else’s situation, we imagine ourselves in their place and if we’re not careful, we project our experiences, abilities and preferences onto them. Even among adults, this leads to arguments and misunderstandings, but with our children, when we project our mentality on them, we substitute adult capabilities for a child’s, and they aren’t even close.

When I went away to overnight camp for the first time at around age 10, my parents sent me with a sleeping bag and a huge collection of clothes and camping gear. As this was my first time herding such a menagerie, I lost more than a few items before returning home. My parents were incensed. How could I lose so many things for which they had paid good money? I had no answer. The items were gone and I didn’t know how or why. I just felt awful. My parents were sure there was something really wrong with me because I was so inept at keeping up with my gear.

Now as an adult I travel and don’t lose so much as a sock. Maybe its because I’ve learned skills and habits that help me, but I also believe there’s a different level of maturity that shows up as an impulse to double-check and make sure I have everything on a regular basis — something I never had at age 10.

Much parental frustration could be avoided through a basic understanding of child development. Young children lack the ability for complex, abstract thought. Their memories work differently. Their capacity for emotional self-regulation is nowhere near adult levels. Even time feels different. (Remember how long Summer Break seemed to be?) All this manifests in kids doing things that look “dumb” to us, but only so long as we fail to understand childhood development.

Should Have Known Better

One of the most pernicious “shoulds” is that our children “should have known better.” This should often arises right after our offspring have done something especially displeasing. In our own hindsight, it seems obvious “they should have known.” And there are two errors for the price of one in that sentence. The first is that we’re using hindsight. We got to see the event unfold all the way through and from a distance, rather than at the moment of choice and up close. The second error is that it’s our own hindsight, not the child’s, which means we’ve got at minimum a couple of decades of extra experience to draw from.

Parents are also liable to become indignant when children seem to “forget” what we try to impress upon them. “I’ve told you a thousand times to…” as if mere exposure conveys competence. Being exposed to knowledge doesn’t automatically mean we’re able to recall that advice at the moment we need it. Even if we do recall, that doesn’t guarantee we’ll be able or willing to execute on that reminding. Good coaches and good teachers set a better example: they know that they’ll need to review and remind again and again before any behavior becomes ingrained enough to happen independently.

You Should be Grateful…

Shoulds are most harmful because they are in some way out of step with reality. Asking someone, especially a child, to feel some way that they do not is a prime example of an unrealistic “should.”

Changing our emotions by force of will is a fool’s errand for adults, let alone children. That doesn’t mean we have to accept discourtesy, but rather that we set the standard on behavior, not feelings. Rather than say “you should love your Grandma,” which puts the child in an impossible bind, try “give Grandma a hug.”

Beyond Should

If parents just stopped “shoulding” on their kids, what would be left? Would we have no standards for our children? Not at all! Having standards is about goals or targets. “Should” says “if we’re not there yet, then something is wrong with us.” Standards say “we want to be somewhere else; how can we get there?” Standards are also only as good as the understanding of our children’s present capabilities and development. Setting the bar unrealistically high only primes us for frustration and our kids for shame and discouragement. But if we pick goals wisely, and we’re willing to accept that our kids, like us, will fall short from time to time, then we give them the best chance of reaching their ultimate goals.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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