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How the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ Can Help Your Child Thrive

Harness the power of “just right”

Published on: December 05, 2023

Boy washing a mug and smiling at the camera with mom in the background

In the children’s story “The Three Bears,” Goldilocks enters the home of a family of bears and tries everything three times. Nothing that belongs to Father Bear or Mother Bear is a right fit, but Baby Bear’s chair, porridge and bed are “just right.”

Named for this classic tale, the “Goldilocks Principle” states that infants, children and adolescents learn and behave better when information and expectations are neither too complex nor too simple, when they are “just right.”

Research has been conducted on this theory, including one study where researchers found that infants tend to absorb information that is “just right,” meaning that they are more likely to ignore visual and auditory events that are too simple or too complex.

Other studies have found that even on controversial issues such as the use of screen time, the “Goldilocks Principle” comes into play. Ensuring that the amount of screen time children and adolescents receive is “just right” can have a positive impact on their well-being and health.

But determining the best expectations for our children is not always easy: How hard should you push them? How much pushing is too much? How much is too little? When should you push harder and when should you ease up? Below are three guidelines and some helpful tools to help set “just right” expectations for your child.

Setting “just right” expectations

1) Aim too high and you’ll miss the mark

Science has shown that expecting too much leads to frustration and hurts your child’s performance. It can also lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Psychologist Martin Seligman refers to learned helplessness as the moment when a child believes he or she is incapable of succeeding. He says that if your child’s experiences are consistently negative, he or she may learn that “the battle is lost before it is even fought.”

However, studies of parental beliefs and expectations suggest that children act in ways that are consistent with what they believe is expected of them. In other words, if your child is led to believe that they are capable of success, they are likely to perform better. If they see themselves as failures, they will learn to see failure as a fundamental part of their nature and try harder.

Setting the right expectations therefore means being fully aware of your child’s abilities, setting expectations that take those abilities into account, and then ensuring that they have the tools to achieve those expectations. It also means expecting more from your child when you know he or she can give more.

2) “Aim too low and you’ll hit your mark” (Michelangelo)

Numerous studies have shown that expecting too little from your child can condemn them to a life of underachievement and prevent them from reaching their full potential. If we expect too little from our children, they will eventually switch off, or worse, begin to believe that we do not have faith in their ability to overcome challenges.

Aiming too low could look like making excuses for your child’s performance or behavior, or even avoiding giving them chores because you think they are not capable of doing them as well as you.

It is important to set goals that help your child consistently develop new skills. This means giving them opportunities to try new things, even if the results are not what you expect initially. It means showing them that we believe they have what it takes to succeed.

3) Change your expectations as your child learns and grows

We all learn through overcoming challenges. Completing new and difficult tasks makes us feel more confident in our abilities. But once those tasks are accomplished, it is important to continue trying new experiences.

As your child gets older, give them more autonomy and responsibility, according to their actual abilities. And remember to show them that you believe they are capable of success.

Tools to succeed

1. Understanding the relationship between effort and achievement. Simply believing in your child will not radically change their behavior or performance. They also need tools to help them meet expectations.

Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller talk about the importance of reinforcing a growth mindset in our children, which means helping children understand that there is a relationship between effort and achievement.

Encouraging your child to focus on solutions and the future is one way to help them grow and develop skills to deal with failure. Next time your child experiences a failure or frustration, try asking them the following questions which are designed to help highlight the connection between effort and success: 

  • What will you do next time?
  • What else can you try?
  • What other strategies can get you the results you want?
  • What can you do to make sure you get the results you want next time?

2. “Not yet.” The power of “not yet” is one of Dweck’s most powerful lessons. She says it is important to teach children that even though they “may not yet have developed” the skills they need, understanding that they are “in the process of developing those skills” makes it easier to overcome setbacks. In other words, “not yet” is more powerful than “I can’t” or “I don’t know” because it teaches children to understand that not knowing today does not mean not knowing tomorrow.

Setting “just right” expectations for your child

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the Goldilocks principle is the importance of aiming neither too high nor too low. But how do we know when we are getting it right?

First, observe your child and make an honest assessment of their abilities, and then match your expectations to those abilities. Any expectations that do not take into account your child’s current stage of development, personality and actual abilities are unlikely to be met.

Second, set clear goals. Setting achievable and memorable goals for your child makes it easier to keep track of whether or not your strategy to set “just right” expectations is working. Goals might include improved reading or piano skills, making more friends, or more participation in household chores. 

Once you are clear about expectations, help your child to understand the behaviors that will help them succeed, such as reading or playing the piano for five minutes a day, joining a club or doing a chore daily or twice a week. 

As parents, we all want to help our children thrive. Setting “just right” goals and expectations is one step toward raising confident and resilient kids. 

More parenting tips 

The Surprising Benefits of Roughhousing With Your Children

7 Parenting Tips for Managing the Meltdowns of Easily Distressed Children

The Ultimate Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Teenagers

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