mother and daughter rolling out cookie dough

Why Age-Appropriate Expectations are Important

By: Cristina Moreno, Bilingual Outreach Specialist, Penfield Children’s Center

I love being a parent, but I also sometimes really miss parts of my life before being a parent. It is not so much the alone time or the staying up late and getting up at a time of my choosing that I miss, but rather the things I used to be able to do. Simple things like working on a project in my spare time, watching an entire movie in one sitting, or spending hours browsing the library or bookstore. I would even enjoy going to kid friendly spots like the zoo, library story time, or the numerous other places and events that cater to families like mine, however, we are just not there yet. My son is one and has the attention span of a typical one year-old, meaning a few minutes tops, maybe longer if you really pull out all of the stops or let him wander as he pleases. And just like any other child his age, his limited vocabulary means that he mainly communicates the only ways he can, by laughing, grunting, or bursting into tears.

We still try to do things we used to enjoy, like go for walks in the summer or go out for breakfast on the weekends, and even take regular trips to visit family that live out of state, but it now revolves around us catering to his schedule and moods, which can be tiring. There are plenty of things I want to do with him but I know realistically are at least a couple of years away. I am looking forward to being able to sit with him and work on an art project or bake something together, but we are nowhere near the dexterity or attention span to do either of those things, and even when we finally get there, there are no guarantees that he will want to do those things or that he will not lose interest 5 minutes into any activity. I can dream up and plan out all of the “fun” I want, but I also understand that there is a good chance that even a family trip to the zoo can result in a tantrum if we are cutting it a little too close to nap time.

While it is a lot of fun to see children hit all of the great developmental milestones, there are some behaviors that arise at different developmental stages that we may not be quite as excited to see, but are part of the package. Having age appropriate expectations means understanding that toddler tantrums happen and no child is immune, and remembering that even a fun-filled day doing all of his favorite things will not be so much fun if he is tired, hungry, or cranky. Knowing some of these common characteristics of early childhood may help you determine whether your child’s behavior is a normal, though not always enjoyable, part of growing up.

Toddlers: 1 to 3 year olds are learning so much every day about how the world works and tend to think that everything relates directly to them, or belongs to them. They need a lot of patience and guidance to learn how to cope with all of their new emotions. Because they have a hard time expressing their wants or feelings, throwing a tantrum, or physically throwing objects, may become a way for them to express anger or frustration. Toddlers also tend to have difficulty controlling their impulses, so hitting, running off, and other undesirable behaviors may result. Very young children also think in simple ways, so they may be able to understand cause and effect that they can see, such as if they throw a ball it bounces, but they will not necessarily understand other consequences, such as if they throw their food on the floor someone (usually mom or dad) will have to clean it up.

Preschool: 4 and 5 year olds are getting better at expressing their emotions and controlling their impulses, but they may still have the occasional tantrum. This age is really characterized by the desire for independence which can result in power struggles, such as arguing, bossiness, or saying “no.” Children this age often want a lot of attention, and if they do not get it by behaving or following the rules, they may begin to act out at home, school, or wherever they find themselves at the moment.

School-age: By now, your child has probably gained the developmental skills needed to understand when they are doing something they should not be doing, or have experienced behavioral management techniques enough times that they know that they can get farther with cooperation than with outbursts. Not only do they have longer attention spans, but they may also be more interested in doing the things you like to do. Very long outings may still be a struggle, but for the most part, you can probably enjoy trips to the beach, movies, and almost anywhere else you choose!

Age appropriate expectations are important to avoid frustration and hurt feelings from both parties. Having too high expectations for a child’s developmental stage sets him up for situations where he will not be able to succeed, and his emotional growth and self-esteem can suffer. It is a good idea to ask ourselves a few questions about our expectations of our child when we are faced with situations in which we find ourselves being frustrated with their behavior.
• Are my expectations fair and have I expressed them clearly?
• Does my child understand what I want from them?
• Is my child able to express his/her thoughts and feelings?
• Is my child feeling well? (not hungry, tired, or ill)

Once we ask ourselves these questions, we can then readjust our expectations appropriately to meet our child’s needs.

When my son was first born I would stare at him and marvel at the idea that he was a completely unique person who would one day have his own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I imagined parenthood as an adventure where I could let my son explore the world and watch him get excited whenever he discovered something new. Young children are naturally curious and joyful, but they are also naturally self-centered, defiant, and completely irrational, all of which are normal. They are in the process of figuring out their own thoughts and feelings and at the same time going through the developmental stages at their own pace. Hopefully I can remember that the next time he is screaming his head off because he does not want to put on his coat and I catch myself thinking, “Don’t you understand this means we are going somewhere? Probably somewhere fun,” because no, he does not understand, and I just have to tough it out until he does.

How do you help manage expectations of your child?

Leave a Reply