Little Expectations

What sort of expectations do I have for my children?

By Melissa Stefanec

As we make our way through life, we become collectors of subjective experience. We collect knowledge, love, hurt and wisdom.

Some of the things we pick up along the way stay with us. Maybe we forget the people, time or place surrounding that thing, but certain things make their mark.

Personally, I like to collect concepts. I like to turn them over in my head until I can finally fit them into my life. Lately, I’ve been coming back to one concept with loving regularity. I can’t remember where I heard or read it, but I can’t shake it. This concept is fairly simple, but changing my ways because of its implications is not.

The concept is: you derive frustration and disappointment by possessing expectations. So, if any of us wants to be content, happy or less stressed, we need to manage our expectations. We can’t manage other people, so we owe it to our mental wellbeing to self-regulate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept as it relates to parenting. (I start asking reasonable questions but then quickly go face-first down the proverbial slippery slope.) What sort of expectations do I have for my children? Are they realistic? Are they age appropriate? Am I dooming myself and my kids to a perpetually frustrating relationship because I can’t manage my expectations? Why have any expectations at all? Do happy people end up abandoning their expectations and thus thriving in a noisy, unkept, wild and beautiful world?

As much as I like to fancy myself a part-time parenting philosopher, I’m not. I’m just a mom who is fumbling through this crazy parenting journey. I can only answer my little and reasonable questions. So, here it goes. My expectations are not always reasonable or age appropriate. Therefore, sometimes, I cause myself, my husband and my children needless frustration. I also inherently welcome needless disappointment into my life.

In the hallowed ambition of less stress, disappointment and frustration, here are a few, simple questions I am asking myself in regards to expectations for my children.

• Would I expect this of an adult?

Do I expect an adult to drop everything they are doing the second I tell them to, no matter how invested in an activity they are? Would I expect top-notch work out of someone when they are tired or hungry? Would I expect an adult to never disagree with friends of family? I would not. So, I certainly can’t place these expectations on my kids.

• Am I comparing my child to others?

I need to have my expectations meet the capabilities of my kids. What works for one of my kids isn’t necessarily going to work for the other one. I can’t expect my kids to do something just because the other kid is doing it. My kids have individual strengths and weaknesses, and I need to craft my expectations around those.

• Have I been consistent in the past?

If I haven’t been consistent or have made empty threats in the past regarding a certain scenario, I need to expect that my kids may not act the way I want them to. I need to acknowledge that changing certain behaviors will take time and consistency.

• Am I being clear about my directives?

Sometimes, I get busy and offer murky directives. I’ve found my kids to be more compliant when I offer them clear and concise directives, as well as clear consequences for not following a directive. It may sound silly, but the fewer words I use, the better my 4-year-old responds. If I say “pick up your robots and put them in your toy box” instead of “pick up this room” he can usually rise the occasion.

Am I taking an all-or-nothing approach?

Sometimes, I don’t value the progress my kids make on things. Instead of being elated they did 90 percent of what I asked them to do, I focus on the missing 10 percent. Would I want to be in a work environment or relationship where I always had to give 100 percent or do things 100 percent right? That would suck. I shouldn’t put my kids in that environment.

I know there is a fine line between managing my expectations and ignoring or condoning bad behavior from a child. I’m sure there are some grumpy and contrary people out there who think managing expectations is lazy or under-reactive parenting. I can assure you it is quite the opposite. I’m not advocating for a life without consequences. I’m not saying, “my kid is being a big jerk, but it’s really my fault. I expected my kid to be nice. Shame on me.”

What I am trying to do is have healthy and realistic expectations of what my kids are capable of. Self-regulation is extremely challenging, so this is no easy undertaking. However, self-checking my expectations will let me save my frustration and disciplinary action for the times they are deserved (like when my son calls his daycare provider dumb when he is told to pick up toys).

If I don’t keep my expectations in check, I am expecting more of my children than they are psychologically able to give. I’m expecting a 4-year-old to act like an 8-year-old or my son to act my like my daughter. That is irrational and a recipe for familial disaster. I will inevitably make my children feel like they are failing a lot. The only time I want my kids to feel the pain of failure and disappointment is when they do something to deserve it. It shouldn’t be a common thing. I owe to myself and my family to aspire to reasonable expectations.