What Works Better Than Expectations?

Coaching two of my favorite parents yesterday, they did something that seems simple. They created an agreement with their child about coping with unpleasant feelings. This agreement replaced their expectations about what she should be able to do on her own at her age.

I cannot overstate the power that an agreement like this can have on the future of your family.

In the Field of Play (my parent coaching container), we get to see how deep these roots can go. Without the cloud of shame and a fear of failing, we can create a grounded family culture by co-authoring agreements with our kids (and with each other).

Yesterday, we shared an a-ha moment. The three of us stopped and fell silent, like prospectors who spy a gold shimmer in their pan. We could feel that something special had just happened. A huge piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Why do agreements work better than expectations?

To contrast the power of creating agreements with the limitations of holding expectations, I will borrow from Master Coach Steve Chandler:

“Here’s the funny thing about human beings. Human beings will love to keep an agreement that they co-authored with you. So if you sit down and you work with someone, and ask them what you can count on, and allow them to ask you for the help they need from you to be able to make the promise, wonderful things happen.”


“Because you can find out in advance why certain things aren’t going to occur. You don’t have to keep fixing them later, and keep resenting the people who don’t live up to your expectations. No, the beautiful thing about this is that agreements, on the one hand, are creative. It takes two people creating and recreating, and negotiating and designing together and agreement.”

In contrast, holding expectations over someone can move us in the wrong direction. Expectations can actually reduce the other person’s eagerness to do what we want them to do.

When these parents asked, “Is it possible to create an agreement with a three-year-old?” I immediately answered: “Of course!” And away we went!

Once we explored the developmentally appropriate way to invite input from their child, we stepped back to look at what we had created. The agreement made it easier for their three-year-old to ask for help with managing her unpleasant feelings. Instead of setting her up to disappoint her parents like a defective robot, the agreement gives her a voice and treats her like a human being.

But it doesn’t stop there!

We could see how the agreement laid the groundwork for later years.

Today’s invitation to process her feelings at the age of three sets the road to invite her to ask for help at seven years old if she wonders if a certain youtube video is appropriate to watch. And that seven-year-old can continue to grow in the comfort of knowing that she can approach her parents to create new agreements as needed.

Then, at 16, she may initiate an agreement on when/how to call home if she feels unsafe getting in a car with a friend who is under the influence or how to leave a party when she realizes that there are no parents supervising. The implications for expanding communication through adolescence and even adulthood are endless.

In my experience working with families for the last 20 years, the risks are astounding. In the dozens of breakout groups that I facilitated with high schoolers and parents, I learned that there are no easy answers or formulas to guarantee safety. The best thing a parent can do is maintain an open channel for communication and build up an emotional bank account overflowing with trust.

Working with hundreds of parents, I can also tell you what is NOT effective: Insist and repeat the expectation to your kids that they will … no, should … no, MUST! come speak to you if they ever have any kind of problem. You don’t want to rely on your loud expectation when their friend says, “you don’t need to call your parents. It will be fine.”

When you build the capacity to create empowering agreements WITH your children when they are young, it is like you are planting a sapling. With consistent attention, water the sapling and watch it grow over the years into a beautiful tree!