Friday, May 7, 2010

Great Expectations

Here's a joke: How do you raise perfect children in two steps?

Step One: Find a perfect child.

Step Two: Pick him up.

My mother would remind that we rear children, we do not raise them (we raise livestock or crops), though my latest dictionary doesn't draw such a firm line between the two.

Here's a roadblock in child rearing: expectations.

Have you ever said any of the following? "I expect my kids to treat me with respect." "I expect my kids to do well in school." "I expect my kids to be good workers." "I expect my kids to go to seminary." And on and on.

(By the way, I've said all these things. And I may have meant what I said, or I may have meant "I hope my kids….", but I doubt I said – especially to them – "I hope…")

My experience is that when I set an expectation, and then my free-agent child fails to meet my expectation, I'm disappointed, upset, and maybe even mad. And quite often my poor kid has no idea what has upset me.

I know parents who have their kids' life mapped out for them. And they're surprised when a kid wants to zig where the plan says zag.

You've no doubt seen at least one of those teen coming of age movies where the kid wants to grow up to do just about anything but what the parent wants him to do. And you end up rooting for the kid and thinking, "What dumb parents." But if you're like me, you may still have expectations.

As I get older, I find it's easier and kinder to drop the expectations. It doesn't mean I drop my standards, or even my hopes and dreams. And it doesn't mean I don't work with my kids to excel in whatever it is they're doing. And to set their own goals. And to find their own mountains to climb (instead of the ones I've carefully selected for them). After all, my hopes and dreams are mine, not theirs.

It's a lesson hard won. My oldest came home years ago with an eyebrow piercing. We had talked about it before it happened. He asked. We said no. He did it anyway. Fortunately (from my perspective) the thing got infected and so he had to take it out. One of his brothers decided he wanted blue hair. After the eyebrow ring, blue hair seemed very temporary (on the hair, that is – not on the bathroom walls where he splashed the hair dye). And it was. After a few years, occasional blue went to black, then finally back to his natural red.

Even though I learned tolerance on cosmetic issues, I also had to learn tolerance on academic, social and spiritual ones, too. In the end, here's what I've learned: my kids have their own life to live. I can offer guidance. I can offer support. I can be a sounding board. I can even try to squeeze my opinion in (except maybe when the boys are 15…). But I can't expect a certain outcome. It's just not mine to control.

In the end (and we're nowhere near the end!), things have a way of sorting themselves out. The redhead even finally repainted the bathroom with the blue hair dye on the wall. Years later. But he did it.

Because he wanted to, not because we expected him to.


  1. Free-willed child or free range child ;)

  2. Some days it's just like herding cats....