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Great Expectations
All parents want to raise children they can be proud of and enjoy. Sometimes, though, in an effort to do a really good job, they fall into the trap of expecting too much, too soon—even from the youngest of children. Inevitably, these parents end up feeling frazzled, and their kids end up feeling frustrated.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Here’s a letter I recently received from the mother of an 18-month-old boy:

Dear Dr. Condrell,

My son is an accident waiting to happen. I love him dearly, but sometimes I would like to book him on the next boat to China. How do you get a toddler to sit through a 45-minute church service without disrupting it? How do you shop in the mall without charging after him as he runs all over the place? It's getting so I’d rather leave him at home. He gives me such a headache whenever I take him places. Taking him anywhere is not something I’d wish on a friend. What advice do you have for me?

My advice? I told this mum to familiarize herself with what’s considered normal behaviour for toddlers. I truly believe that all parents should read up on the various stages of childhood so they know what to expect from their kids. Obviously, this mum knows enough that she wouldn’t attempt toilet-training her son at his young age. However, she doesn’t realise that 18-month-old children lack the self-control to sit through a homily or endure a shopping expedition.

Fortunately, there are many good books available on the subject of childhood development. One such title is “What To Expect The Toddler Years” by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff and Sandee E. Hathaway. My frazzled letter writer, as well as all parents of toddlers, would do well to read it.

This book quickly reveals that you can’t expect an 18-month-old to stay quiet very long in church or resist running around in a mall. The solution, then, is to learn how to manage a curious young child who’s short on self-control and patience. Here are some of the management tips I passed on to this mum.
  • In church, sit near the back of the chapel so you can exit easily in case you child begins to get loud or cry.

  • Some churches have soundproof rooms for parents and their children. If your place of worship provides such a room, by all means avail yourself of it.

  • Before church, decide with your spouse that one of you will step outside with your child if he acts up. Each week, alternate which parent assumes this responsibility. That way, at least one of you can enjoy the service.

  • There’s always the option of simply not taking your toddler to church. Some parents are surprised by this suggestion, even though they never would walk into a public library with a baby.

  • Another option is for parents to satisfy themselves with a shorter stay at church—30 minutes, perhaps, as opposed to 45 minutes or an hour.

  • As for taking an 18-month-old to the mall, the best alternative is to leave the child home with a sitter or a relative.

  • If that’s not feasible, consider using a child harness to keep your little one from disappearing while you’re focused on shopping.

  • To keep your toddler happy and out of mischief, offer him snacks.
Once parents know what their expectations should be, they can make the necessary adjustments and manage their child. If, on the other hand, parents cling to unrealistic expectations, they end up blaming the child for not doing the right thing. In so doing, they create two major problems for themselves and their child:

One, they put themselves in situations that make them feel like failures as parents. When the child can’t meet their expectations, they blame themselves.

The second problem is that the child also ends up feeling like a failure—like a “bad” child. Children who are exposed again and again to unrealistic expectations often end up feeling inferior, something that can plague a child throughout life.

The wise parent learns from friends, relatives, other parents or books what a child is capable of at different ages. Education is clearly the key to keeping calm when faced with a child’s limitations. Once you know what to expect —and what not to expect—both you and your child can more fully enjoy your time together, and spare yourselves a lot of frustration.
Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist