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Excellence: 10 Tips to Help Children Meet High Expectations

Updated on April 3, 2013

Success and Achieving Goals

As parents we often have low expectations of our children. OK...maybe not low, but often we don’t have high expectations. I am not saying this to be critical but many people just assume their child will naturally be excellent at a given endeavor or not. Some kids are good athletes, some are naturally talented at music, and others are academically gifted. And some are not. When parents realize their child is not immediately gifted they often just accept it. Many parents are perfectly happy with their child doing activities the child likes and enjoys, and beyond that, they want them to be comfortable. However, comfort and success often don’t go hand in hand. Most people who achieve success in life are willing to experience some tension and frustration and work through it in order to reach their goals. Reaching goals and being successful is also not about continually comparing ourselves to others. It’s about making the incremental changes that may at time be challenging but propel us forward and give us the momentum needed to reach our goals.

Our children don’t have the perspective that we have. Mostly they just do what they believe their peers are doing. The path of least resistance is certainly an easy one but it doesn’t always prepare us for the challenges in life. Some of us adults have had to learn this the hard way and often later in life. As parents, isn’t our job to at the very least pass on the benefit of this wisdom by finding ways to set high expectations for our kids and encouraging them to challenge themselves? Obviously we want to do this without abusing or alienating them in the process. But it is possible raise the bar for our kids, and this is especially needed in an age where get-rich-quick schemes and the slacker mentality suggest an ideal in which we should all receive great rewards with minimal output.

Defining Sucess

Children who have been abused or neglected will of course require more patience and encouragement than other children might need, but it is still possible to help most children achieve goals that others thought weren’t possible. I have seen children damaged by alcohol, abuse, and neglect graduate high school and move on to postsecondary education, despite their adoptive parents being told that was highly unlikely. I have seen the parents of children with poor motor skills, who have been told the child lacked the coordination to play team sports, turn that low expectation into a challenge and encourage and support the child to eventually play sports at a high level. High expectations can make a huge difference in our children's lives.

We all know stories of people with horrific personal histories who, despite serious obstacles, managed to accomplish great things in life. We have also seen individuals, who seemingly have everything, but end up struggling with addiction or other debilitating problems that cripple them and prevent them from living up to their potential. The lessons children learn from doing their best at a given activity can be carried over into other areas of their lives. The lessons of perseverance, resilience, and passion associated with high expectations are just a few of the experiences that children can carry with them for life. Too many children hear from their parents just as long as you enjoy what you are doing, that’s all that matters . However, learning to push ourselves beyond expectations can build character and although high achievements don’t always need to be painful, there will likely be some frustration and discomfort along the way.

How do we define success? The child who is never expected to read has achieved greatness when they persevere and eventually read at a level equal to most of his peers. The child who thinks they are naturally uncoordinated but loves football achieves greatness when they eventually make the varsity team. Maybe these children aren’t the very best at their chosen endeavor but they have achieved greatness because they greatly exceeded expectations. The child who picks up skating and puck handling naturally but eventually quits the sport they love (ice hockey) as others start to get pass them in skill has not achieved to their potential.Why is this? Is it because they didn’t learn to push themselves to achieve to the best of their ability? Is it because they didn’t learn the lessons of how to accept the challenge of excellence? Did they not learn to handle adversity and work at pushing beyond that frustration? Did they become comfortable and bored with the activity because they made it routine and stopped challenging themselves? Or did they stop because they always viewed success in terms of how they stacked up in comparison to others. Children who succeed and meet high expectations do so because they are not easily discouraged. They show resilience and they work hard to bounce back from setbacks. The following ten tips can help to support children to reach their goals and learn to cope with the stress of high expectations.


Children who have behavioral, physical, or mental challenges can still be supported to reach beyond conventional expectations. There are blind people who participate in marathons, people in wheelchairs who play basketball, and children with attention deficits who learn to read novels. There are also athletes who were not the best players on their respective high school hockey, basketball, baseball, or football teams who eventually became professional athletes. Children benefit from lofty goals because the lessons learned in trying to achieve these goals help throughout the rest of their life. Few goals worth achieving are ever achieved with low expectations.

2. Break goals down into smaller more achievable goals

If a child wants to learn to play piano, the teacher doesn’t start with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. They start with a simple exercise and eventually learn a simple piece to play (and then you get to listen to it over and over). Children get frustrated sometimes when the goals seem too big or overwhelming. Breaking big goals down into smaller goals allows children to take the time and learn the patience necessary to achieve bigger goals. Teachers refer to this as chunking and it not only keeps children from getting overwhelmed it also helps prevent them from getting too far ahead of themselves. A lot of basketball coaches can tell you how frustrating it can be to coach a child who wants to do NBA moves but doesn’t yet have a grasp on basketball fundamentals.

3. Start with something your child is passionate about

Some children are very clear about the things they love: art, music, sports, writing, dance, computers, drama and so on. Yet their parents are unaware of what it is their child truly loves. Why not first support the activities they love? Forcing a child who loves astronomy to play piano is to some degree the prerogative of the parent (they are the ones expending the resources) but when space camp rolls around in the summer and little Tina is practicing piano every day, how will she feel about missing space camp? Sometimes it’s possible to do more than one thing but children can also get distracted if they are pulled in too many directions at one time.

4. Help them find good available role models

This one may require a little effort on the part of the parent. If a child wants to learn to skate, we will likely put them in skating lessons. Then we will take them to public skates and let them skate with other children usually in their age range. As parents we may notice a particularly skilled slightly older child. It can never hurt to ask that child to pass on some tips and maybe even spend some time helping their child learn to skate. The parent needs to pay attention and find a person who is patient and a good mentor. For example, the staff at places like skating rinks would likely know who the rink rats are and who might be a good role model for a younger beginner. As children improve their skills, it is always possible to find other older role-models who can model the next level of success at a given activity.

5. Encourage Children to Practice

This might seem obvious but kids won’t learn their times tables if they don’t practice. They won’t get better at the skills they don’t want to practice. Most coaches know this. That is why training is usually divided into practice drills, followed by gameplay. Work first, play second. Repetition can be boring if children don’t have a focus. The goal of parents and coaches is to get children to care about mastery and focus on incremental improvements. The best athletes, musicians, writers, computer programmers, and teachers in the world have one thing in common. They practice their craft. They find ways to challenge themselves and improve upon what they already have achieved continually working towards excellence. One of the worst things a coach can hear is it doesn’t matter, it’s just practice. It’s not life or death . Kids should be encouraged to act as if . When doing anything worthwhile that gets them closer to their goal they should act as if it’s more important that it really is. By acting as if they put in their maximum effort and condition themselves to use their own internal resources to push themselves.

6. Encourage Commitment

Kids often claim they want to try a new activity that requires a significant expenditure on the part of their parents. When my cousin wanted to play drums, he was told he needed to save some money for his first drum kit and his father would pay half. He built a drum kit out of ice cream buckets and managed to find a cheap symbol and high hat. He learned to play that ice cream drum kit like it was nobody’s business. His father saw how committed he was and eventually forked over the money for a real drum set. If your children want to do an activity that requires significant resources, have them sign a contract. For sports this might mean agreeing to complete at least one season. For musical instruments it might mean agreeing to take a specific number of lessons. You can also have them agree in advance to be willing to listen to their teachers/coaches and to be committed to learning and following through, even when they are frustrated and it becomes difficult.

7. Surround them with their chosen interest

If I child wants to be a concert pianist, then maybe listen to classical piano concertos or better yet take them to see recitals. If a child wants to be a dancer, take them to dance recitals and let them watch TV shows and movies that focus on dance. Let them put up posters of their heroes in their room. Young physicists might have an Einstein poster. A young computer programmer might have a poster of Bill Gates. There are videos, books, and even video games that can reinforce a young person's interests.There are camps for almost every interest and web sites as well. Finding cohorts who support and encourage ones interest is also easier than ever. While internet use and participation in things like forums needs to be closely monitored, there are always ways for parent’s further support their children’s interests. Most importantly, children succeed when parents join them and support the interest by taking an interest themselves.

8. Have a low tolerance for excuses

Help children recognize excuses for what they are. When they have made a commitment and then say they don’t feel like practicing or going to class or they say it’s too hard or not fun anymore, remind them that while they may feel that way that it is just another challenge for them to overcome. Helping kids push through is a great way to teach them about an important life lesson. Quitting is sometimes more painful than pushing through, making mistakes, and continuing to work towards our goals. Life doesn’t just wait for us, so if we’re not moving forward, we’re going backwards. Wanting to be comfortable is normal. Learning to persevere and stick with it even when things get difficult or challenging is how we develop character and resilience. Children usually don’t require much of a push to follow through and if framed properly, this should be seen as a sign that their parents care.

9. Children benefit from frustration and support

There will be times when children become frustrated or stuck. Parents and coaches always walk the fine line between pushing children past their comfort zone in order to get improvement but not pushing them so far that they get discouraged. Some kids have a higher tolerance for frustration than others but parents need to realize that a frustrated child is a child who is learning. Supporting children through challenging times is one of the main roles of a parent. Parents need to let kids know they have confidence in them to manage their frustration and work through their difficulties. Support them for their successes in working through challenges as much as you can. Let them know how proud of them you are when they problem solve or overcome a challenging event. Always reinforce the process and how they were able to make t through a difficult time because what they have learned can be applied the next time things get difficult. We need to be aware that children who learn to overcome frustration are more likely to develop the self efficacy needed to reach lofty goals. Parents also need to know that children who feel secure in the world are more likely to have the confidence to succeed. At the end of each day children should be told they are loved no matter what has happened that day and that their parents encourage them to do their best because they love them.

10. Encourage children to ask for feedback and constructive criticism

Individuals who achieve a high level of success are usually not afraid to ask for feedback from others. They know they aren’t perfect and there is always room for improvement. They also know that a trained eye may have a different perspective that can help them improve. I remind children who are resistant to any form of feedback that even the best athletes in the world have coaches. Figure skaters, tennis players, and golfers all have coaches. These athletes rely on the expert advice of others because they can see things that the athlete can’t, even though the athlete may be the best in the world. Everyone has blind spots and it can help to have another pair of eyes to help us improve. Being unwilling to hear feedback or criticism is just the ego’s way of protecting itself in the moment, but in the long run this type of defence mechanism can actually prevent growth. Coaches and teachers don’t give criticism to be cruel, they do it to better prepare their players and students.Children need to understand and appreciate this and that can only happen through experience.


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