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Having high expectations for our children seems like common sense. But while we may worry about children falling behind academically and reaching their full potential, young people are struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it. It’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves the price of high expectations and how we define them. 

Defining high expectations can mean a variety of things. The spectrum varies from behavior to learning, to grade achievement. One of the best, and hardest, lessons to instill in young people is resilience in the context of high expectations. While resilience is a key life skill, sometimes letting go of something that has gone from a focus of joy to a focus of anxiety can be a critical decision to help a young person’s emotional and psychological health. Lela Grant, one of our Cultures of Dignity Teen Advisors, shared her experience and we end this article with a few questions for self-reflection for parents, guardians, and educators.

My Great Expectations

By Lela Grant 

I Loved To Dance

I love dancing. My mother says I was in constant motion in her womb. When I was four, I auditioned for The Washington School of Ballet, the premier ballet school in Washington DC, and was accepted. I put all my hopes and dreams into being the next Misty Copeland, the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. That was the expectation I set for myself and I believed it was my parents’ expectation as well. 

So I danced. 

Everything was fine until I turned eight. My teachers taught me great technique, but I began to struggle mentally and emotionally. The school that once made me so happy became the place I dreaded. I felt unwelcomed and invisible. The students ignored me, and the teachers constantly told me that I couldn’t dance and that I should quit. 

I Hated Dancing

A secret grew within me…I hated dance. I no longer wanted to be a professional ballerina. I no longer wanted to attend The Washington School of Ballet. I attempted to tell my parents that I wanted to stop several times but I didn’t because I thought that they would be mad and disappointed. One time I practiced what I was going to say in the mirror while my parents, my grandma, and my sisters were at the dining table talking and eating. I remember walking to the dining room and getting sick to my stomach. By the time I got to the dining room I thought I was going to pass out. I actually told them I didn’t want to go to The Washington School of Ballet anymore. They said Really? and I freaked out and told them I was just playing, and ran back downstairs. Two years passed. My secret grew and festered. I was miserable. Finally, I confessed to my parents because I couldn’t stand being there anymore. To my surprise, my mom and dad weren’t mad or disappointed with me. They were proud of me for telling them and supported my decision. I was relieved and shocked. What happened to their great expectations of me? 

They told me that all they wanted was for me to feel safe and seen at dance school. That was their expectation. Since that was no longer the case, they were happy to let me leave. They let me heal. 

When I was 12 I started dancing again, but only at community centers, nothing serious. When I was thirteen, my desire to dance changed again. I missed dancing more seriously. So, I talked with mom and dad again and they supported my desires. It took a little over a year to find the right dance school but this time it felt different. My parents and I talked a lot. My parents were curious about my thoughts about dance and my expectations – both of the school and of myself. They let me know that I was taking the lead in this decision and that I could expect their support (as long as I honored the school and myself by showing up with integrity, going to class on time, respecting my teachers, and finishing the semester strong ). It was a long journey, but one that would have never happened if I didn’t talk to my parents and confront my expectations. 

Expectations are Complicated

In January of 2021, I saw the movie Encanto and its lessons about expectations really resonated with me. The movie is about a Colombian family who are each given a “miracle”, a supernatural power. But the movie is also about unhealthy expectations. Abuela, who is the head of the family, expects – and almost needs, everyone in her family to be perfect. Her kids and grandkids work hard to meet her expectations and make her proud, but she’s never satisfied. This not only hurts Abuela’s relationships but also hurts their relationship with each other. They compare themselves to each other all the time. In one of my favorite songs in Encanto, Surface Pressure, Luisa (one of the grand-kids) sings about how she is made the rock of the family, which becomes her purpose in life, and the pressure to uphold that expectation. The lyrics read:

“…Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’till you just go pop / I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy. or relaxation, or simple pleasure? Instead we measure this growing pressure…”

Like me, it’s not until Luisa expresses her unspoken emotions and the pressures she feels that her healing can begin.

What I have Learned

Expectations help achieve something you may not have thought you could do. But they can also impose a lot of stress and unhealthy pressure, especially on children. Sometimes, we don’t feel we have the room to change our minds, our interests, or our goals. We live with a quiet fear of messing up, or failing, or disappointing someone. Most of us want to be able to live up to our parents’ expectations even more so than our own, but it can seem so exceedingly high that we feel unable to reach it. Most children don’t feel comfortable or capable of telling any of this to our parents. There are many reasons why we hide our truth because they’re living their lives through us. Others don’t because they believe telling their parents would be a burden or make their parents feel that somehow they have failed. It can feel better to struggle without saying anything, but I have come to believe talking it out is best. Push aside your expectations and communicate what’s on your heart. If you don’t you might just, “tip ’till you just go pop.” 

At Cultures of Dignity, young people have often reported to us that at some point having high expectations for oneself can easily turn into not allowing oneself to make mistakes or being ashamed. This is especially true when they want to give up something they excel at or have committed their parents’ time and money. Meanwhile, parents tend to focus on the importance of teaching not to give up on something their children have committed to; usually without knowing that their child’s reason for “giving up” is understandable. 

WHAT SHOULD WE FOCUS ON?

Better than high expectations, let’s focus on reasonable expectations where we teach our children to pursue their purpose, create meaningful social connection with others, and strive to achieve without that achievement being tied to their sense of self worth. So we would like to leave you with these questions for self-reflection:

How do you define high expectations?

Do they allow the people you apply these expectations to learn, grow, and make mistakes?

Do your high expectations include the possibility of “letting something go?”–even when it’s a commitment?

Do the young people in your life know your answers to these questions?

Deeper Dive: Expectations, emotional and psychological health

For further resources, check out our Tiny Guide on Cognitive Load and library of educational webinars with world-renown experts. In our webinars, we discuss, among other topics, why young people hide problems they’re experiencing from parents (like Lela did with her dancing) and what we can do to support them.

As always you can get our Tiny Guides here to help comprehend core social and emotional concepts, understand their impact on you and your relationships, and equip you with tools to put them into action.

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My Great Expectations