Your Elementary-School-Aged Child

Behavior you can and should expect.

Many parents are uncertain about what they should reasonably be able to expect from their school-aged children. Realistic expectations are essential because children need to know what “good behavior” means: a set of ground rules that you have established that they are expected to follow whether they feel like it or not.

Unfortunately, a great number of parents seem to have this turned around by allowing what their child is willing to do to determine what they expect. Over many years as a child psychologist treating families with problem children, I have rarely encountered parents who expect too much. Rather, what I see most often is parents who simply can’t stand it whenever their child pouts (which, by the way, is not a diagnosable disease and requires no attention whatsoever). Letting children off the hook for being irresponsible and disrespectful is a huge parenting mistake, and is the royal road to endless arguing, defiance and ultimately loss of parental control.

To establish reasonable expectations, parents must consider two fundamental factors:

  • Age-appropriateness— Is the child developmentally capable of living up to the expectation? Is this child old enough to tie his shoes, make his bed, pick up his toys, brush his hair, dress himself, keep track of his school assignments?
  • Aim— Do these expectations help my child to master new skills at the appropriate age and develop a suitable level of independence?

Maintaining certain expectations seems to be easy for most parents. For example, when a child is delighted that he can tie his own shoes his parents usually don’t continue to do it for him. After a child learns to ride a bike, we don’t run after him ready to catch him if he falls. As children continue to grow, they develop new abilities. In early childhood, these gains are often very obvious, distinct and exciting. Most parents can easily recall their child’s first words, first steps and first day of kindergarten. Development continues in later years, though not usually in such clear-cut and noticeable ways. Because children progress at somewhat different rates and have differing interests, we cannot reasonably expect all children to develop new skills and abilities at precisely the same time or to the same level.

In general, I suggest the following tips for fostering your school-aged child’s development:

  • Write out a clear, behavior-oriented set of expectations for your child. Make sure your rules are about what to do, and not just a set of unacceptable behaviors. Be sure to include some rules that apply to everyone in the family (e.g., talking with respect, answering each other when spoken to, asking permission to use things that belong to others). Review each rule to be sure it is reasonable, age-appropriate, and that your child can easily understand them if presented in “kid language.” Rules should be short, to-the-point and descriptive enough so your child can visualize exactly what the expected behavior looks like, sounds like and acts like.
  • Help your child choose activities that are appropriate for his or her current abilities and then raise the bar as skills increase— don’t expect too much or too little when starting new activities; try to accurately assess how your child might perform and gauge how fast and how far you can expect him to progress in a given amount of time.
  • Encourage your child to talk openly with you about feelings. It may help to play a game with a short list of feeling words (e.g., sad, grumpy, frustrated, excited, mellow) to help your child correctly label emotions so they can be expressed appropriately. Offer suggestions for dealing with anger in healthy ways (e.g., draw a mad picture, pound on a mattress, jump rope and pound the anger into the ground).
  • Encourage self-discipline; expect your child to follow rules that are set; reward your child when you catch him practicing patience, self-control, generosity and flexibility.
  • Teach your child how to be respectful and assertive in three ways: (1) giving thanks or praise to others (“Thank you very much for helping me with my math;” “I really like the way you did that.”) and accepting praise as well (“Thank you for saying that.”), (2) making requests: “May I please borrow a pencil?” and (3) setting limits or saying “no” when appropriate: “I don’t like playing when you keep getting so mad about losing the game, so I am going home now.”
  • Teach your child to listen to authority figures and to discuss with you any complaints he or she may have about teachers or other adults in their lives.
  • Talk with your child about peer pressure and help set guidelines together that will help your child make good decisions when peer pressure occurs.Bearing these things in mind, when it comes to what you should expect of your child my general rule of thumb is this: When children are old enough and have no impairment that would prevent them from mastering tasks and doing them on their own, parents should increasingly turn over responsibilities to them. If a child can get his own cereal, juice and toast in the morning and clean up after himself, then he should be doing it. As soon as your child can learn to use the washer and dryer, he should be responsible for doing his own laundry. If the child doesn’t want to do it or forgets, so be it. The consequences will speak for themselves. Likewise, if a child knows how much time it takes to get ready for school and has an alarm that works, leave the rest to him. If he fails to get to school on time more than once or twice it will probably lead to detention, as it should. Parents are not living alarm clocks or reminder services.

Without question, as a parent you are charged to love, nurture and support your child. Yet a vital part of that process is to remain mindful that your primary job is to guide your child toward greater and greater responsibility and accountability. Much sooner than you expect, your child will be old enough to be launched into the adult world, and whether or not he will be ready depends, in great part, on the expectations you set along the way during the elementary years.