Why is it so important to have realistic expectations?

As challenging as they can be, having realistic expectations makes you happier, the operative word being realistic expectations. All too often I hear people say, “It’s better not to have any expectations, that way I won’t be disappointed.” I believe that’s an unrealistic statement, it’s near impossible to not have expectations, I’d even venture to say that if you think you don’t have expectations you are probably fooling yourself. Why is it so hard to have realistic expectations?

First off, what is reality, well that’s probably a whole book in and of itself! According to the Cambridge Dictionary reality is defined as, “the state of things as they are, rather than as they are imagined to be.” I believe it’s really hard to see a situation for what it is for many reasons.

One reason being there is something called a confirmation bias. The term confirmation bias was first coined by English psychologist Peter Wason and is defined as the tendency to favor information that confirms a person’s beliefs or values. When making a decision, forming an opinion or deciding on an action we tend to hone in on the information that supports the beliefs we already have rather than seeing the whole picture and taking note of information that might challenge what we believe. If we don’t challenge what we already believe how do we get a realistic read on what we are facing. A very simple example of confirmation bias is ignoring news that contradicts your beliefs like watching or listening to one news source.

Another reason it’s so hard to have realistic expectations is because as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we aren’t very good at predicting how we will feel in the future. So if we don’t know what will make us happy or unhappy how can we have realistic expectations?

Starting today what can you do differently in order to have realistic expectations? Well first, learn to be in the present. I’m a big believer in learning to breath. I also think it is really important to question your beliefs – what can you control, how do things HAVE to be done, this SHOULD happen, are important beliefs to be aware of and question. Truth be told just by starting to question your expectations you probably are beginning to set realistic expectations.

If we assume most parents want their children to succeed in school and a growth mindset fosters academic success then I guess the question becomes how do we foster a growth mindset? According to Carol Dweck there are several ways to foster a growth mindset. You can teach your children how the brain works. You can praise your children for effort rather than intelligence. You can incorporate the word yet into your vocabulary. You can teach your children how to set goals. You can teach your children how to have self-control. 

Today I would like to talk about effective¬†praise. There are two kinds of praise, effective praise and ineffective praise. What makes one effective and the other ineffective? If the point of praise is to promote self-esteem, reinforce good behavior and encourage children to succeed, then I would venture to say that the way most parents praise their children is ineffective – it doesn’t achieve the intended goal. Telling a child, “Good job, Champ,” doesn’t achieve any of the afore mentioned goals – it’s ineffective.

What is effective praise? Effective praise also known as process praise, as its name suggests, highlights what the child did in order to succeed. Effective praise doesn’t label, it doesn’t judge, it simply tells a child what you saw happened and how you feel about what happened. Let’s say your child does well on his/her math test. Instead of saying, “Wow, you’re amazing!” you can simply say, “Wow I bet you really studied hard, I’m so proud of you.” And you can add, “Tell me about what you did to make this grade?”

For many parents, this type of praise is not very satisfying, it doesn’t convey the joy and enthusiasm they feel in the face of a child’s success. However, if we are honest, praise is not for the parent to feel good, it’s for the child to feel good and to continue to succeed and what the research shows is that effective praise accomplishes this goal. Children, when praised effectively, feel a sense of pride and self-efficacy – they feel good about themselves. And at the end of the day when a child feels good about themselves they will most likely be academically successful.

I think it’s fair to say that most parents want their children to succeed in school. If, in effect that is the case, then I guess the question becomes – how? How do children achieve academic success and how do their parents help them? I’m sure there are many ways…, I guess. One way I know that works is having a growth mindset. According to Standford professor Carol Dweck a growth mindset leads to academic success. Carol Dweck is considered a pioneer in the study of human motivation. She is best known for her research on mindsets. According to Dweck we have two ways to look at our abilities, intelligence and skills, with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. From these two different mindsets come two very different ways of behaving.

People with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence is fixed, it can’t grow nor change. People with a fixed mindset believe they are who they are and that’s just how it is. “I’m really not a math person.” “I’m this way and that’s just who I am.” “You’re the writer, your brother is the scientist.” Are all examples of fixed mindset thinking. I have what I have and I can’t do anything about it. What makes academics challenging in the face of a fixed mindset is the belief that you can’t do better, because you only have a certain amount of ability. As a result of this belief people with a fixed mindset tend to give up more easily, they tend not to persist.

People with a growth mindset believe that with effective effort they can grow and change and improve. People with a growth mindset believe that they can become better versions of themselves. “I didn’t do well on my math test, next time I’m going to test myself while I’m studying, I bet that will help me do better.” Is an example of growth mindset thinking. What makes a child with a growth mindset academically successful is the proactive behavior that arises as a result of the belief that they can do better. Children with a growth mindset persevere more, they are undaunted by adversity, failure and challenges. They don’t worry about seeming dumb because they know they can get smarter – they can grow their intelligence.

The beauty of the idea of a growth mindset is that it can be fostered. As parents and teachers we can help our children cultivate a growth mindset. In the coming weeks I will be writing about what the research shows fosters a growth mindset.