Sports and after-school activities have started kicking back up and it’s been a challenge getting our family and kids into a rhythm. If you’re a parent with a busy calendar, you can understand the balance of having a routine and being flexible. Routine gives a sense of safety, but providing changes keeps kids engaged and teaches the brain flexibility. There’s an innate push and pull between structure like expectations and flexibility like a compromise.
Clear expectations are like having a sturdy fence around a playground. They help a child and parent feel safe and provide children more freedom and room to move in an appropriate environment. Children feel a sense of safety and control. It also shows them that the adults are big and strong enough to ‘build that fence’ and be in charge. If a parent has not set up expectations appropriately and a child assumes responsibility for them, it causes confusion, insecurity, and behavioral issues. Children aren’t developmentally ready for this task and can often get into trouble for something they didn’t understand. Parents feel frustrated and challenged. Kids become angry and insecure. This is because the parent hasn’t clarified or stuck with expectations.
We need to adjust our ‘fences’ as our kids grow. A supportive parent is attuned to their child, demonstrates kindness and is flexible when needed. This doesn’t mean we let go of our values. It means we parent with mindfulness and presence while modeling how we can go with the flow of life. Becoming too confining and rigid with our kids will result in the same issues as with having no fence- underdeveloped life skills, insecurity and anger. A purely rigid approach can cause children to explore less, become fearful of mistakes and stop taking appropriate risks. For example, a child may not be willing to try out for a sports team for fear failure. Flexibility shows children that mistakes happen and we can fix them, learn from them and move forward. Flexibility also shows that you can adjust your sails while keeping course with your deeply held values and beliefs. It helps give children space for creativity and exploration.
The Ideal Blend
Ideally, we’re using both high amounts of expectation and high supportiveness with our kids. Most parents, however, fall on one side of the spectrum or the other. They naturally set clear expectations but struggle with supportive flexibility or they are highly supportive and have a tough time setting limits. Frequently one parent will be on one side and the other parent will be on the opposite.
Healthy parents will try to each add their own side to create a balance. In most cases this is helpful. Sometimes, however, there can emerge such a swinging seesaw effect as parents attempt to overcompensate for the other’s perceived weakness, that it becomes unhealthy. For example, one parent may feel the need to ‘rescue’ the children from correction while the other feels the need to overcorrect because of lack of structure. This can result in a lot of frustration, hurt feelings, and confusion for kids.
The best parenting is a blending of both clear expectations and supportive flexibility. This is because kids need structure and to understand what is expected of them. They also need to feel safe and know they can seek help, support and have the freedom to be creative and flexible.
For most parents, this is a challenge. Start by taking small steps towards the areas you struggle with, while also using your natural gifts. Communicate with your spouse and get clear on what your core values and expectations are so you know where you agree to ‘hold your ground’ and where it’s okay to ‘bend’. If this is an area you’ve been struggling with, your not alone. I’ve created a helpful, affordable online course called the DRPS Family Reboot for supporting families. It’ll help you in very practical ways to get clear on expectations, priorities, improve communication and oh so much more!
As we move further into the spring semester of activities, change, and busy schedules, be proactive in areas where you can create structure and in how you can communicate expectations to your kids. At the same time, be present, mindful and supportive of the changing needs that will come up. Above all- enjoy these precious, sacred moments of time with your kids.
Wishing you all the best!
Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCC, is owner and clinician at Georgetown Child & Family Counseling. She specializes in working with children, teens, young adults and those who care for them. She writes and speaks on topics that support parents, educators, and counselors in doing the sacred work they do.