You want your son to stay in his bed, because you all have to sleep! Granted, he’s three and a half years old, but because you’ve asked him every night for the last 147 evenings, you expect him to be able to do this without a problem. Right?

But he doesn’t.

Every night around 2am, he comes into your bedroom with the sleep disruptive and all too familiar “Mommmmy?  And as the sleep depravation gets the better of you as you march him back to his room and think in frustration, “Why can’t this little monster just stay in his bed!” 

When we give our precious little people some directions, it feels amazing when they actually do what we ask  Ahhh… Compliance.  The Holy Grail of parenting small children.  When they don’t comply, after a many attempts we might think, “Is he testing me? Is he being defiant?  Why can’t they just do what I ask, it can’t be that hard, right?” 

Well…, yes…and no.   

It doesn’t matter if it’s staying in their bed at night, keeping hands to themselves or putting shoes in the right spot… there is always something you’ve asked hundreds of time which to this day, still may not consistently happen.  And so if it just feels like your little people are incapable of doing what you ask, many times it’s because they actually ARE incapable of mastering certain requests until a certain age.

This my friend, is known as the expectation gap

The expectation gap is the disconnect between what parents expect of their children and the reality of their children’s actual capabilities to control their emotions and curtail their desires.  

And the most frequent issue with non-compliance is not our little people.  Rather, often the issue is our expectations of our little people. 

First, and foremost, having age-appropriate expectations is a necessary part of the knowledge required for healthy and effective parenting.  Second, we must provide the dynamic relational support our kids need in order to meet those expectations.  

When parents get caught in the expectation gap, it may be difficult to practice compassion-based parenting because the repetitive disappointment in the behavior of our little people can truly get the best of us.  So what do we do?

How does Praiseworthy Parenting as a philosophy address the expectation gap?

When clients begin a program with me, one of the first things I encourage is a bit of education.  Because kids don’t come with owner’s manuals, and so we have to LEARN what is appropriate to expect of children developmentally speaking.  It is also helpful to gain this understanding before kids reach each stage because this brings awareness and allows us to recognize what expectations are appropriate and which are unrealistic.  This way, we can rightly adjust our expectations according to the specificity of our child and their unique personalities.  This serves to avoid the expectation gap when possible.

Next, I coach my clients on developing the skill of relational & emotional support that their kids naturally must have as the foundation to help them achieve what is being expected of them.  Whether its following simple directions, cleaning up after themselves, practicing an instrument, doing their homework, or practicing the art of kindness with their siblings and friends, having our dynamic relational support is fundamental.  We actually have to come alongside our children and help them do what we ask them to do.  We do this by modeling, using empathy, emotion coaching, guiding & correcting, allowing for mistakes, being vulnerable and having compassion when they fail. 

We do well to remember that the point of being parents isn’t merely to reproduce, rather, it is to enjoy the privilege of loving and nurturing another human with a view to their reaching their full potential.  (More on this in another post.)

What Motivates More?

I frequently get asked how I motivate my kids. How do I consistently achieve cultivating internal motivation in my twins?  And honestly, it comes down to understanding and support.  And let me be very honest with here. Anger and punishment do not cultivate intrinsic motivation in our children. Punishment and rewards are external, and the motivation that stems from them simply does not last.

Just Google the research on this and get a good understanding of this. The fact is, when we have high expectations of our children, it is the dynamic relational support that serves to cultivate the internal motivation they need to achieve those expectations.  This is true at any age.

Some Easy and Practical Tips

I don’t know about you, but my kids are rarely ever just sitting around waiting for instructions.  No, just like us, our kids are busy and engaged in their own activities and aims.  And just like us, there are times when they are doing something important to them that has their attention fully engaged.

So while our kids may acknowledge our expectations, they might be so focused on what they are doing that they forget what we’ve asked or even ignore it.

This is not because kids are inherently defiant, they aren’t (mostly).  Rather, little people under age 12 truly tend to live in the moment (especially boys).  They don’t strategize about next week, and they don’t revel in two months ago. They live right where they are right now, in this moment, in all their little people glory.  And in their minds, what they are doing is very important to them.

The most helpful thing in these moments is to remember they need your empathy & support as they struggle to stop doing what they want in order to start moving toward doing what you want.

Kids 2 to 3

  • Teaching kids to comply at this age isn’t impossible, but we must remember their attention spans are impossibly short.  Training them not to run away when when you call them can be achieved by having one person and yourself call them back and forth between you in an open space.  When they get distracted and wander, say “uh oh” in a sweet voice and then have them try again.  Do 5-7 times each day.
  • Be very positive and affectionate when you see them doing the right thing.
  • Start setting limits very early.  Let them know the things that aren’t okay with a SMILE and not a frown.  Tiny people interpret frowns as disapproval of themselves as they cannot understand the difference between who they are and the way they behave.
  • Ignore the small stuff. There’s so much to learn so it’s best not to overload them. Help them learn the really important things first.
  • For the sake of your own sweet sanity, don’t take it personally when they don’t do as you ask. 
  • Be kind and gentle when correcting. They are doing their very best with what they have. When expectations are too high, it can give rise to anxiety or defiance. 
  • Help them start recognizing their feelings by using words to name them. Say simple things like “It’s disappointing when you want to keep playing isn’t it.”

Kids 4-7 yrs

  • When your kids are engaged, give them a heads up that you will be asking them to do something in a few minutes. 
    • 1st:  When it’s time, let your child know and be sure you have their attention.  If they are engaged in an activity, a gentle touch on the shoulder or the head really helps with this. 
    • 2nd:  SMILE and then say what you want using a soft tone.  The smile part is really important.
      • When your child looks at your face, do they see kindness, softness, & warmth?  Or do they see hard resolve, frustration, distress or impatience?  When we display these emotions on our face, it communicates disapproval.  
      • Commanding voice tones do not instill a desire to comply, rather, they instill anxiety, especially in small children.
      • A child’s natural instinct is to survive at all costs, which is why it seems at times they only comply when we get angry.  What they’re really doing is trying to survive in the moment.
    • 2nd:  Make your request clear, short and specific.  “I would like it if you would…” or, “Will you please go do…”  
    • 3rd:  Give them the choice between completing your request right then, or in a bit (knowing which one they will most likely choose.)  Simply ask:  “Would you like to do this now, or in — minutes? (Set a timer on your phone.) 
    • 3rd:  Ask your child to repeat your request back to you by saying “I hear that you want me to…” Tip:  Make this a game or fun with smiles and laughter.
    • 5th:  When the timer goes off, or the minutes agreed upon have lapsed, remind them of their choice.  

Extra tips For younger children:

All of the above and…

  • If the task is complex, like helping with dishes, or putting more than a few toys away, break the task up into smaller steps and offer to help.  (Remember, help is “relational” support and if you want your children to be supportive to their own children, you must model this for them.)
  • Use active recognition when each task is complete.  Active recognition avoids superlatives like “amazing” and “fantastic” and instead is specific and direct.  It’s letting your child know that you notice them without the hyperbole so common in praise.  Phrases like, “I see how hard you’ve worked to complete this project.” Or, “I bet it feels really good to do well at (whatever the task was)!”  Or, “I noticed how you came right after I called you.” 

Start this kind of a process with your children when they are young. Then you can graduate to ask for completion of two steps, then come see you, followed by combining another two steps. Finally your child will be old enough, and accomplished enough that she can clean her room knowing all of the steps involved.

For older children:

Choices, choices, choices!  Choices teach our kids to think through scenarios for themselves, and follow them to their logical conclusions.  You might ask, “What time would work best for you to do this morning, afternoon, tomorrow, etc.?”  Make sure you frame the choice in a way that works for you.

Active recognition:  “I saw how that gave you a challenge, and you didn’t give up.” Or, “I really appreciate how you follow through with your commitment on that.”

For any age:

Pointing out our child’s shortcomings hurts our relationship with them.  Complaining about your child’s behavior or using anger to motivate them is a big parenting pitfall.  When we criticize and blame our kids, they don’t stop loving us…rather, over time they stop loving themselves.  This is because kids internalize criticism, and when we are grown, we tell ourselves those same criticisms.  Criticism imbues shame, and is one of the dark horsemen of compassion-based parenting.

Therefore, if your child fails to keep his end of the agreement, simply and whimsically call out “Uh oh…did you hear the timer?”  Or “Oopsie,…you need to follow through and I know you can do it!  Time to put the “activity” away for now.” 

If your child responds in frustration, “Mom!  I just wanted to finish this!”  I get it.  And so do you, so empathize with them.  You might say something like “Yes, it’s disappointing not to be able to keep doing that.”  I understand.  I feel disappointed also when agreements get broken.  Let’s try again ok?  Because it’s best to do what we promise to do.” 

You might also ask, “Can I help you put those away?”  Or, “How about a quick tickle before you go do you what you’ve agreed to?  

Knowing your child and understanding their capabilities helps you avoid the expectation gap and hold appropriate expectations for them.  Knowing they will fail many times, supporting them with lots of empathy, and working together with them and their different needs communicates that you deeply value the connection you have with them. 


If you enjoyed this post and would like more information on Praiseworthy Parenting, please don’t hesitate to reach out!  I’d love to chat with you and coaching conversations are usually enjoyable and informative.  To get in touch, click here.




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