Finding Balance, By the Numbers

What the Research Says About Expectations

There are reams of research showing a positive correlation between high expectations and high achievement. For example, students with higher aspirations and expectations for their academics generally have higher school achievement. One study even found that for 9-to-11-year-olds, positive expectations predict improved socio-emotional development and can act as a protective factor against stress.

Our expectations for the future influence our goals and our behaviors. Kids who see a future in which they will be safe, be healthy, be involved in helping other people, and have friends they can count on are more likely to have higher levels of positive developmental outcomes (e.g., confidence, contribution) and lower levels of negative outcomes (e.g., depressive symptoms, risk behaviors).

These positive beliefs about what your life might be like are termed hopeful future expectations, and have been linked to academic success, psychosocial well-being and even athletic achievement. 

And where do parents and caregivers enter into the hopeful future expectations equation? Building a relationship with children that is high in connectedness and trust is thought to be a pathway to promoting hope. As for expectations, parents’ expectations can guide youth expectations, but taken to its extreme, this influence can be detrimental to kids.

Research has found that youth today perceive 40% higher levels of parental expectations and criticism than 30 years ago. These factors are linked to perfectionism in kids, which can lead to depression and anxiety. 

The three types of perfectionism come from the self, from others (e.g., parents) or from society. And in looking at the impact of parental criticism and expectations in particular, researchers found that excessive expectations can have a bigger negative impact than parental criticism. When expectations are too high, kids will inevitably fail to measure up, which negatively impacts their self-esteem and can lead to the aforementioned mental health challenges.

We’ve seen in our own research that many kids are tremendously hard on themselves when they fail, often using negative self-talk, blowing things out of proportion, or losing control of their emotions when they experience setbacks.

This is why so many of Legends’ activities teach self-compassion and growth mindset: so that we can help kids to reconceptualize failure as an everyday occurrence that can even be instructive.

How can we as parents and caregivers thread the needle between pushing our kids to aspirational goals while not setting them up for disappointment and failure? One helpful framework for setting expectations that are developmentally appropriate includes looking at how appropriate expectations are by age, by individual, and by social or cultural standards.

Setting aspirational expectations that are reasonable based on a child’s age, individual abilities and environment gives them meaningful and achievable goals. Teaching them the confidence skills they need to react positively to failure will ensure that they’re moving in the right direction, regardless of the outcome.

Callina, K. S., Johnson, S. K., Buckingham, M. H., & Lerner, R. M. (2014). Hope in context: Developmental profiles of trust, hopeful future expectations, and civic engagement across adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(6), 869–883

Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2022). Young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticism are increasing over time: Implications for perfectionism. Psychological Bulletin, 148(1–2), 107–128. 

Khattab, N. (2015). Students’ aspirations, expectations and school achievement: What really matters? British Educational Research Journal, 41(5), 731–748.

Maddux, J. (2012). Self-Efficacy: The Power of Believing You Can. The Handbook of Positive Psychology, 227–287.

McDade, T. W., Chyu, L., Duncan, G. J., Hoyt, L. T., Doane, L. D., & Adam, E. K. (2011). Adolescents’ expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood. Social Science & Medicine, 73(3), 391–398. 

Sipsma, H. L., Ickovics, J. R., Lin, H., & Kershaw, T. S. (2012). Future Expectations Among Adolescents: A Latent Class Analysis. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1–2), 169–181.

Wyman, P. A., Cowen, E. L., Work, W. C., & Kerley, J. H. (1993). The role of children’s future expectations in self-system functioning and adjustment to life stress: A prospective study of urban at-risk children. Development and Psychopathology, 5(04), 649.

Join the conversation

or to participate.