Great Expectations?

Posted on April 16, 2015 by Dr. Gary L. Welton


“If your children are no better than you are, you have fathered them in vain, indeed you have lived in vain.”

-Solzhenitsyn from “Cancer Ward”

Actually, I am not satisfied merely if my children are better than I am, for I have set that bar rather low. At the very least, my goal is that my children will be above average, better than their peers.

I am not speaking of academic ability. We are drowning in evidence of academic strengths and weaknesses, based on required standardized testing. Instead, I am thinking of positive youth development, sometimes referred to as character development. Do people view me as a man of integrity? Do people view my children as people of integrity? Are they contributing members of society, in their families, at the workplace, and in their churches? Psychology is not as accurate when it comes to measuring positive youth development. It is a more subjective domain; the evidence is easier to misinterpret and exaggerate.

A large amount of research in psychology is based on survey data, in which people describe themselves. The evidence suggests that such data are always suspect, because people are not good judges of their strengths, their weaknesses, and their particular motivations. This reality has been documented in David Myers’ book, “The Inflated Self: Human Illusions and the Biblical Call to Hope.” This book provides convincing research evidence of the problems associated with self-report data. We are not very accurate when we evaluate our own characteristics, especially in those areas where the evidence is more subjective.

If self-report data are questionable, you might wonder why they are so often used. It is a matter of logistics and pragmatics. More reliable data require more sophisticated and more expensive methods. One potential approach, however, is to gather data from multiple sources. For example, instead of just asking teens to provide self-report data, one might supplement their answers with reports from their parents. If teens exaggerate their skills and characteristics, we might get a more balanced perspective from their parents.

Or not.

Along with my colleagues, I surveyed teens and parents from 223 families, asking teens to rate both their characteristics and the nature of their family dynamics. A parent for each teen also rated the teen’s character development and the family dynamics. It is impossible from these data to definitively determine the accuracy of the teen ratings, but based on the historical analysis, we would expect that the teen self ratings would be inflated. We do have the ability to compare the teen ratings to the parent ratings, which might help us evaluate the extent to which the teens inflated their self ratings.

Or not.

For each and every one of the primary variables of interest, the parent ratings were statistically higher than the teen ratings. If indeed the teens exaggerated their self ratings, as we would have expected, then the parents exaggerated even more.

We defined positive youth development by combining scores from five different scales, including selflessness, forgiveness, gratitude, resilience, and satisfaction with life. On this index, parents rated their teens higher by .29 standard deviations than the teens rated themselves. We also measured self-control. On this measure, parents rated their teens higher by .58 standard deviations. The difference was even larger when we asked respondents about family dynamics. On this measure, parents rated the family dynamics higher than did the teens by .67 standard deviations.

Does it matter? If the views I hold about my teens are unreasonably high, what are the consequences? Perhaps it is good when I report that my teens’ character is unrealistically high. Maybe it means that I am giving them a fair deal, that I am not undervaluing their successes, that I am not exaggerating their failures. If so, then this may be a positive finding. Or, perhaps it is problematic. Maybe it indicates that I have unrealistic expectations. Perhaps I have created an image that the teens cannot possibly realize, and that when they fail to meet my standards, they give up. Are my expectations too high?

My children will make some bad decisions now and then, but hopefully not as bad as some of mine. When they do, I hope that I will be there for them, showing them love and forgiveness, and helping them to learn from the consequences. Hopefully my children will look to me and see me as a guiding light, rather than as a hopeless target or a failed lighthouse.

Dr. Gary L. Welton

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.

17 responses to “Great Expectations?”

  1. Serge says:

    Teens are maturing day to day and their brains are not fully developed until 25 years old. I believe they will need guidance and support till then at least. Emotional IQ is just as important as academics. Be aware of our politicians supporting programs like common core education. Students academic standards shouldn't be set by them or teachers. Teens could be taught to expect the best from within themselves and also to learn from failure.

  2. It is, I believe, always a good idea to acknowledge that our children may NOT be "like us" OR even they may not even "like us". All of us are born with PREDISPOSITIONS, as the Ancients of India pointed out, and that means or can mean VARIETY in a family… not particular instances of parents. This "can mean" a butting of heads between child and parent. I am an example of NOT being a "chip off the ol' block". And yet, I do remember many points of conditioning along the way… while "growing up". Follow Self is the best rule, as J. Krishnamurti suggests.

  3. texas wolfie says:

    I was a narcissistic , self serving, scheming little jerk despite my upbringing by the most moral mother anyone could ask for. I thought I had a better way. Turns out I didn't. Thanks Mom.

  4. himagain says:

    It is natural for all people but the rare few to believe that there is a simple answer to success.
    It isn't even the much-lauded "sweat of the brow".
    The best success advice to give any child is simple:
    Pick your parents very carefully……
    Oh, and be lucky.

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  13. Debra Frank says:

    As a matter of fact, I am not fulfilled just if my youngsters are superior to anything I am, for I have set that bar rather low. At any rate, my objective is that my kids will be better than expected, superior to their associates.
    Debra Frank
    I am not talking about scholastic capacity. We are suffocating in proof of scholastic qualities and shortcomings, in view of required state sanctioned testing. Rather, I am considering positive youth advancement, some of the time alluded to as character improvement. Do individuals see me as a man of trustworthiness? Do individuals see my youngsters as individuals of respectability? Is it true that they are contributing individuals from society, in their families, at the working environment, and in their houses of worship? Brain research isn't as exact with regards to measuring positive youth improvement. It is a more subjective area; the confirmation is less demanding to misjudge and overstate.

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