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How to Set Healthy Expectations Around the Holidays

'Tis the Season for High Ho-Ho-Hopes

🎄 It’s the most stressful time of the year. 🎄

That’s what I hear from parents, anyway: “There’s so much pressure to be perfect!” To find the right hiding place for the Elf on the Shelf, the right Hanukkah gifts, the right photo for the holiday card…

…and on and on until the pursuit of joy leaves us out of breath and things start to feel not quite as holly jolly as we’d hoped. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expectations and how they can shape kids’ confidence and self-image—for good and for ill.

I love a good contradiction, and the question of expectations presents a great one:

  • Research shows that “high expectations” can be great for kids, driving hopefulness, positive self-image, grit, and achievement.

  • Research also shows “high expectations” can be bad for kids, driving perfectionism, anxiety, and feelings of conditional love. 

Yikes. What on earth are we supposed to do with that, exactly!?

The holidays provide a perfect example of expectations as a double-edged sword. Part of the magic of this season comes from anticipation—looking forward to treasured traditions or unwrapping thoughtfully chosen gifts. And yet what should be a joyful season can get overtaken by worrying others will be disappointed.

One youth development program I know of shares this motto with parents: Set high expectations, and let go of outcomes.

Put another way, when our expectations are about hope in the potential for a bright future and faith that it’ll come about, they’re uplifting for all involved.

But the more rigid our expectations are—when our good feelings are conditioned upon things happening in a certain way or on a certain timelineit creates a cycle of pressure and disappointment that no one wants to be trapped in. 

Expectations work best when they’re lighthouses that guide us, rather than yardsticks we measure ourselves against. 

That’s true whether we’re preparing for the holidays, or raising a confident kid. 

👀 Read on for

Stay Legendary (& Happy Holidays!),
Fish Stark
Head of Program & Curriculum

My favorite holiday movie is Miracle on 34th Street. You know… the one where Santa Claus gets a job as a Macy’s store Santa, and creates a sensation by telling parents exactly where to get the toys their children want, rather than pushing Macy’s products on them. 

In that spirit, we asked some of our Legends Insider parents to share some of the other parenting newsletters and podcasts they like best, and here are their recommendations:

Brave Writer with Julie Bogart 
“I would also recommend Julie Bogart’s work and wisdom to any parent raising good humans with confidence and strong critical thinking skills,” from Lauren B

Tilt Parenting
For raising “differently wired” kids (giftedness, ADHD, autism, 2e, learning differences, sensory processing issues, anxiety and more)

Rob Beckette and Josh Widdicombe’s Parenting Hell
“I laugh out loud,” from Anjali R

Help Your Kid Calm Their Mind 😌

Legends is a confidence-training app that builds legendary kids.

If you have a kid(s) age 7-11 and want to try our new app, you can use code LEGENDER to get 1 month for free!

1️⃣ Model flexibility with the phrase “I hope…but if...”

Having expectations is a good thing. Being rigidly attached to those expectations creates stress and disappointment. You can help your kid learn how to tolerate disappointment in the moment, but you set yourself up for success even more when you accept ahead of time the possibility that things may not work out the way you hope.

This doesn’t mean lowering your expectations. It means reminding yourself that things may not happen the way you expect, and that’s OK. 

A good way to start is by modeling. You can say things like: 

“I hope there won’t be any traffic. But if there is, we can handle being a few minutes late.”

“I hope it’s not too late to get tickets for that movie I wanted to see. But if it is, I can catch it on streaming.” 

Then you can prompt your kid to think about expectations this way when they’re preparing for a school day, or excited for a holiday, or going to a friend’s house. What do you hope, and what’s true even if it doesn’t work out the way you planned?  

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We dream. We dream while we sleep, we dream while we’re awake. Sometimes our sleeping dreams are actually nightmares, creating angst and fear.

But in most cases the word “dream” connotes positive, aspirational feelings like dream job, dream relationship, dream vacation, or dream school. These dreams provide us with hopes that we know may not ever actualize.

But then, miraculously, a dream is realized! Having worked at highly selective Duke University for over four decades, I have repeatedly observed high school students getting admitted to their dream college. When they receive the coveted acceptance letter via snail mail or (more recently) by logging into a website, a student’s reaction is usually one of sheer euphoria, with shrieks and tears of joy from them and their parents.

A dream come true!

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.

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. 

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