Fred A. Bernstein

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The Parenting of Low Expectations

Foreword to "52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom: Effective Strategies for Raising Respectful, Happy Kids" by Meg Akabas

Published in 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom, December 13, 2012

by Fred A. Bernstein

Recently, I organized a birthday party for my sons -- energetic seven-year-old twins. The party consisted of taking the boys and their friends to a minor-league baseball game, where they would watch the action on the field while eating lunch and taking breaks for the occasional arcade game.

The boys behaved abysmally -- acting more like three-year-olds than children twice that age. When I mentioned this to a friend who was at the party, he offered a sobering observation: The other children hadn't behaved any better.

He was right; but it was little consolation: We, and the other parents, had set the bar for our children low -- perhaps dangerously low.

You may be thinking, "They're seven year old boys. How can they be expected to behave?" If you are thinking that, imagine the seven-year-olds of generations past, who went to church; worked in the fields; helped raise infant and toddler siblings. Their survival, in many cases, depended on their ability to toe the line.

It's not that children today can't behave -- it's just that we don't ask them to.

America is suffering an epidemic of low expectations parenting. It's everywhere, from the popularity of gross-out books (which parents buy in the belief, reinforced by educators, that boys won't read unless they can read about farts) to the demand for snacks at every kids' activity, lest children go an hour without access to food.

No wonder parents report -- in several widely publicized surveys -- that parenting is a drag. Parents expect nothing of their kids. And, expecting nothing, that's exactly what they get.

Parenting is, and always has been, a self-fulfilling prophesy, and today's parents are setting themselves up for disappointment.

As a result of expecting so little of our children:

More than 20 percent of American children are overweight
Only 43 percent of kids who start college finish in four years.
America is 48th in among nations in children's mathematical ability.

The list of troubling statistics could go on and on, but here's the bottom line: we aren't preparing children for the world we're leaving them. I'm not talking about truly disadvantaged children, who face serious problems accessing education and jobs. I'm talking about kids who have opportunities, but are being asked to do practically nothing with them.

We are preparing children to live in an affluent society in which their every need will be attended to. But that isn't the world they'll be inheriting. Kids used to having everything handed to them are heading into a competitive global economy.

Remember: when it comes to math ability, an important predictor of achievement, the children of 47 countries are doing better than our children.

But forget the bigger picture, for a minute. If you're reading this, you probably have more immediate concerns than the long-term economic outlook.

Short-term: How will you get through the day? Medium-term: how will your child ever make it through college, without the "homework monitors" and tutors so many kids rely on, starting in kindergarten? And without (sad to say) medication?

And you're right to wonder that. But here's something to wonder first: why have parents let this happen?

Here's Barack Obama's account of how his mother taught him English, during his elementary school years in Indonesia.

"Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school." Politics aside, Mr. Obama – who spent the rest of the day at a Catholic school where he was taught in Indonesian – went on to head the Harvard Law Review and write best-selling books in brilliantly evocative English.

Compare this to parents who think it's too much if their kids have ten minutes of homework. (Yes, there is a huge move to eliminate homework as being too stressful for children.)

Barack Obama's mother gave him a gift -- one most American parents wouldn't have the guts to give their children.

I see it all around me. Here's what happened at a recent orientation for Hebrew school (which my children attend on Monday afternoons from 4-6 p.m.):

The director presented a terrific report on the curriculum, which includes history, religion, culture, and language. But during the question-and-answer period that followed, parents didn't seem concerned about how the teachers could cover all of that in two hours a week. Here's what did concern them: Snacks. "What kinds of snacks will you have for the kids?" one parent asked, adding, "My daughter can't go two hours without eating." There was a murmur of agreement among other parents, and a few references to low blood sugar.

After that, the parents broke into smaller groups to meet with their kids' teachers. In my group, one mother said that after a long day at school, her son really couldn't expected to do much reading or writing. She suggested that the children instead be asked to do physical things -- like act out Bible stories. Other parents joined in, agreeing that reading and writing were too much to ask of the children from 4 to 6 p.m..

Remember what Barack Obama was doing from 4 to 7 a.m.!


Children need to eat healthy food. If they don't, it's because we, their parents, don't expect them to. It's not because we haven't mastered the techniques outlined in best-selling books about how to trick children into eating their vegetables. According to that school of thought, the reason kids aren't eating well is that their parents aren't sufficiently sneaky.

Why should we have to trick them? In an article about children refusing to eat vegetables, a Houston psychologist, Susan Gardner, asked a sensible question: "Where are the parents of yesteryear," who put out nutritious foods and "expected their children would eat them"?

Children in past generations ate what was put in front of them, because if they didn't, they wouldn't get anything else. (Most children, for most of history, were lucky if they were given even one "choice" for dinner.)

So when people say, "My children won't eat vegetables," that's just another way of saying, "I've given my children a choice not to eat vegetables, and they took me up on it." (Right? If there hadn't been a choice, they would have eaten vegetables. Unless you think your child would have starved himself to death -- which some parents must believe is a real possibility.)

Broccoli is just the most obvious example of something children won't choose.

Other examples include:

Doing chores
Being polite
Finishing difficult projects

If there's a choice whether to do those things or not do them, children (for the most part) will decline.

Which is why they shouldn't be given the option.

That's not to say children shouldn't have choices. In fact, they should have lots of choices, which help them build self-esteem and independence. Meg Akabas believes in giving children choices like these: For little kids: "Do you want me to put on your shoes first, or your jacket?" For older kids: "Which of THESE movies would you like to see tonight?" In those cases, you're happy with whichever one your child picks.

In the realm of healthy food, "Do you want to eat broccoli or cauliflower tonight" is a great choice. Because you're happy with either outcome.

But, if you are like most parents, you may have asked your child, "Do you want to eat broccoli or macaroni?" There are two possible outcomes: your child chooses broccoli to please you (not because he wants to) or your child chooses macaroni. One way your child will be resentful; the other way, you'll be disappointed. Either way, someone's not happy.


Not only do parents have low expectations, but educators seem to be encouraging the don't-ask-too-much-of-the-children approach.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:

In the view of many educators, "Boys shouldn't be asked to read anything that's difficult. A large number of teachers believe we must "meet them where they are." "Just get 'em reading," one teacher counsels cheerily. "Worry about what they're reading later."
Both driving (and benefiting from) the trend is a publisher, Penguin, which once used the slogan, "the library of every educated person." Its recent titles include "Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger."
Recommended by teachers!

One father I know, whose ten-year old daughter goes to a private school in Manhattan, was told his daughter should only be allowed to read books that are "just right" -- which the school defined as having no more than five unfamiliar words per page. "The five-words-per-page rule was formally elaborated for the kids at school by the librarian, the reading specialist and home room teachers, empowering the children to reject any book that wasn't ‘just right,'" the father recalled.

He wanted his daughter to read the "Phantom Tollbooth," which, he says, is a great book "precisely because it has as all sorts of odd usages, neologisms and intentional juxtapositions of ‘hard' words with their more common synonyms." But the choice didn't pass muster with the school. "I was told this book, my favorite when I was 7, was not 'Just right.'"


Another driver of low-expectations is the American consumerism, a culture in which all problems can be solved by buying the right product.

Take pull-up diapers. The average age at which children are toilet trained has risen significantly, as companies like Proctor & Gamble flood the market with pull-ups. The toilet-training philosophy these days, as one parenting expert wrote, is this: "Wait until your child is ready; don't force the issue of potty training. Just relax and use pull-ups."

As a result of parents being told to "just relax" (and shop), diapers for 30-pound children are now huge sellers.

And this is progress?

It's progress only if you believe the goal is to shield your child from all of life's discomforts, and that, as today's experts insist, children should only do things when they're ready.

Though most parents would probably deny it, parenting styles are profoundly influenced by advertising.

Children don't know that pull-ups cost money -- lots of it -- and stuff landfills to bursting. But parents know these things. And they should weigh the costs against the against their child's short-term comfort.

But in low-expectations parenting, there is no weighing -- the child's desires are not just the beginning, but the end of, the discussion..

It's an approach that is not only, facilitated, but driven, by marketing to consumers.

Why ask a child to confront a problem, if you can by something to make it go away?


Even advocates who suggest setting high expectation for children seem to set low expectations.

The Parenting Institute, which runs a popular website for parents, gives six rules for getting children to meet high expectations. Rule three is "make sure your child agrees that the expectation is both reasonable and achievable."

But waiting for children to agree that the expectation is reasonable means the child, once again, is in control.


So why do parents do it? It may have to do with the desire of parents to befriend their children -- creating a relationship of equals. The breakdown of traditional parenting roles means both father and mother are in a position to compete for the child's affection -- which, mistakenly, they do by failing to set standards.

Then, too, parents are too busy and too distracted to ask much of their children -- since setting rules and limits requires parents to follow through: turning off the TV, putting down the iPhone, and focusing on what the children are up to.

But, to their credit, parents with low-expectations probably just want their children to be happy.

They are acting on a the belief that giving them everything they want as children will make them happy as adults.

But, if anything, the opposite is true.

Children, when they grow up, "will be happy sometimes, and unhappy other times -- just like everyone else," said Laura Gold, a New York psychologist. The question is: will they be productive members of society; will they get along with people; will they tackle challenges, or run from them? The goal of parenting is to give them tools -- which is very different from giving them everything they want. A child who is always given fish, to paraphrase the Chinese proverb, will never learn to fish.

Indeed, giving your children everything they ask for isn't a form of love. It is, according to Meg Akabas, a form of neglect.

And it is a form of neglect that has become accepted: the neglect of low expectations.