Are our expectations too high?

The mother, grandmother, author and literary scholar Xenia Frenkel wonders whether, nowadays, we sometimes have too high expectations of our offspring and whether more independent learning and making mistakes are also part of development
Author: Xenia Frenkel | Illustration: Anja Riese | 2018/2

A few years ago, I asked a child and adolescent therapist what kind of children come into her office. She looked at me sternly and said: ‘You mean, presumably, what kind of parents?’ That’s not what I meant. She then explained that more than half of her young patients didn’t actually need to see a therapist. Their parents just needed to accept the fact that their child is completely normal. These days, however, every child has to be exceptional: funny and always in a good mood, avid readers and good at sports, brave and careful, confident and modest, sociable and thoughtful, strong-minded and adaptable, and good at school.

I felt as if I had been caught red-handed, because I, too, had high expectations of my four children. Like most parents, I projected my highest hopes, dreams and wishes onto them, so they could make the most of their childhood and be able to cope with the challenges and hurdles ahead. It wasn’t as easy as I had imagined.

It very quickly became clear that rather than bringing four little child prodigies into the world I had entirely normal children, who sometimes argued, had bad moods and liked to mess around. Two of my children also didn’t really like going to school. They loathed learning at school, and this was reflected in their mediocre marks. Nevertheless, they were, in my opinion, intelligent and talented. How could this be the case?

To look further into this, I dragged my son, who was, at the time, in his first year of school, to an IQ test. Not because he showed exceptional talent – the opposite, in fact. As he could already read, write and count, he got bored at school and played the class clown. The test didn’t reveal much. His IQ was slightly above average. The school psychologist said, somewhat curtly, that ‘younger siblings can already do most of what is taught during the first year of school. It’s completely normal. They learn a lot from their older siblings. Next, please!’

My ‘mistake’ was my own expectations. Only 5% of the world’s population has an IQ that is markedly above or below the average. Yes, every child is unique and wonderful, but otherwise they are, in all probability, completely ordinary. Us parents would do well to keep this in mind. Expectations affect those who have them and those who bear their weight – our children.

Nearly one in two students suffers from stress

DAK-Gesundheit’s annual ‘Präventionsradar’ survey, which, in 2017, questioned almost 7,000 students from more than 400 secondary school year groups, revealed that almost one in two students (43%) suffers from stress. A third of the boys and girls surveyed indicated that they had headaches, backaches or problems sleeping, with girls feeling even more stressed than boys. 40% of the children and young people see school as a burden and said they have too much to do for school. Both stress and physical complaints increase as the school years go up.

Many parents are convinced that school and only school is to blame. I’m not so sure that’s true. I simply know too many parents who put their kids under tremendous pressure. Of course, they don’t do it on purpose and don’t even realise that they’re doing it. For example, parents boast that their little Theo-Amadeus is a ‘mastermind’, who is happiest sitting alone with a complicated puzzle, and don’t notice that, in fact, he’s not particularly happy at all. Another example is on the football field. The young talents are cheered on by animated parents on the sidelines, until a somewhat confused eight-year-old runs in the wrong direction or stops dead in front of the goal, allowing the opposing team to thunder past, whereupon they get told off and all hell breaks loose.

‘Helicopter parents’ – a scourge

I hovered around my kids whenever something didn’t go as I had imagined, long before the term ‘helicopter parent’ began to be used in Germany. Luckily, my four put up a fight. Despite a few patches of turbulence along the way, they were fine and yet they still put less effort into school than their other activities, which they chose themselves. My eldest, who was 12 at the time, transported her potted bowls and vases across the city to be glazed and fired; a little later, she looked to join a theatre group. She was never late and didn’t miss a single rehearsal. Leonie read from morning to night and not for school; Paulina hammered away at the piano, creating her own compositions; and Ruben, for years, spent every available minute on his skateboard – not once did pulled muscles or cuts and scrapes stop him. Sometimes, I would ask them if they ‘could perhaps put as much effort into maths?’ but it was ultimately just a rhetorical question. If a child really wants to do something, there’s no need to worry about them – even when school isn’t going so well. Unrealistic expectations skew the view of your own child. You only see them in terms of performance, and nothing else matters. It makes you ill and unhappy.

It’s best not to smother your child to the point where they have no energy left to do the important things, namely what they themselves really want to do. In other words, we urgently need to put more trust in our children’s own capacity for self-development, as described by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. ‘The activities that lead to development come from within the child themselves. To be an agent of their own development, children need awareness, speech, movement, thoughts and feelings, they must be able to make decisions by themselves and acquire knowledge about the innumerable details of the world.’

In general, the overly ambitious parents who want to constantly control their children, push for and bask in their successes and talents are a scourge. Children who have been trained to be ‘skilled’ are often obsessively competitive and develop, at an alarming speed, a delight in being top of the heap. This should be of some concern. Growing up in a happy, relaxed atmosphere, where they are encouraged to discover their own interests and inclinations independently, where they are given a lot of trust and are allowed to shape their development through independent words and deeds, not only shows them what they are made of but develops community spirit, a sense of responsibility and confidence.

We are, of course, allowed to encourage our children to give their best, but they will also do this of their own accord when they feel that ‘I am perfect just the way I am. My parents have confidence in me and my abilities, and if something goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world!’


Xenia Frenkel is a mother of four and has six grandchildren aged between two and 17. The literary scholar's reflections are influenced by more than three decades of educational practice, which she likes to share as a freelance journalist.

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