When I was training to be a life coach, our instructor said to us that our level of disappointment is related to the gap between two things – our expectations and the facts. Although this may sound simple in principle and you may be saying to yourself, “Well, of course”, stop and think about real-life situations where you find yourself disappointed and you will soon see the problem.
I went out to lunch with a few other future life coaches, and one of them, Sarah, told me about some challenges she was having at the time with her teens. Sarah was married for the second time and had two teens of her own and two teens who were her husband’s kids. Most people would already cringe at this stage, right?
Anyway, Sarah said that her kids were well organized, but her husband’s teen daughter was “very messy” and kept leaving her clothes on the floor, which drove Sarah bonkers. When Sarah tried to confront her stepdaughter about tidying up her room, she got the “You’re not my mother” treatment.
“Don’t you think I have a right to ask her to keep the house clean? Is it too much to ask that she pick up her underwear and socks off the floor?”, Sarah asked me.
The expectations-reality gap
I said, “You know, what we’ve just covered in the life coaching class could really help you out of this situation. Would you like to give it a try?”
“I don’t see how, but let’s see”, she agreed reluctantly.
“OK, we just learned that frustration and disappointment arise from having a gap between what you expect and what you get. From what you’ve told me, you expect your stepdaughter to keep the room of her floor clear of clothes and stick to some other organizational guidelines, which you find reasonable, right?”
“But, for some reason, she is not living up to your expectations”.
“They’re not just my expectations. My own kids can do these things and any parent has a right to set rules at home and have a minimum of order”, Sarah got excited.
“Hang on a second. Whether or not others agree with you isn’t relevant here. What is relevant is that you have certain expectations, they aren’t being met, and you want to find a way to stop being frustrated with your stepdaughter. What’s her name, anyway?”, I asked.
“It’s Annie”, she said.
What if you expected nothing?
“What if you had absolutely no expectations whatsoever, would you get disappointed by any of her behavior?”, I asked.
“Probably not, but I’d be disappointed from the standards we live by at home. If I don’t expect anything, things will get completely out of hand, won’t they?”, Sarah said.
“Actually”, I said, “It may be quite the opposite. You see, you interpret Annie’s actions according to your current standards. If your standards were much lower, then theoretically, everything she did would be OK with you. She could then only exceed your expectations and you’d be happy”.
“What are you saying here? Are you saying I shouldn’t expect her to keep her room clean and learn to live in a pig sty?”, Sarah was getting a little upset.
“All I’m saying is that if you take the extreme case, you end up happy. Of course, setting standards is good parenting practice, because our kids have to learn to be considerate, healthy and so on, but if setting the standards too high causes frustration and a child is clearly incapable of performing, wouldn’t you agree that we should consider expecting less in favor of having a better relationship with them?”
Sarah contemplated for a few seconds. A few times, she took a breath, as if she was going to speak, but then kept pondering my point a bit more. Eventually, she said, “But what about her treating me like ‘You’re not my mother and you can’t boss me around’?”, she asked, mimicking Annie’s tone of voice in frustration.
“Isn’t it the same? The fact is you aren’t her mother, and you are bossing her around, don’t you agree?”, I said.
“I suppose I am”, Sarah said quietly.
Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Check your expectations
Even if you are only raising your own kids, I am sure you have had similar situations, in which your expectations are not being met by the kids’ behavior and when you apply pressure, your relationships with them deteriorate. When this happens, you have a choice to make:
What is more important to me – having a clean floor/clean bathroom/done homework/tended garden/whatever or having a good relationship with my child?
If you choose relationship, you have to lower your expectations to the level of your child’s performance or below, in order to be content and positive. Here are some points to work on:
- Very often, we inherit our expectations and our standards from our environment, mostly from our parents. Therefore, we accept them as absolute, non-negotiable rules. Forget that. Every rule is negotiable, and so are your rules.
- Friction happens when you try to get your child, teen or otherwise, to do something for you, something that will bring you pleasure or reduce your pain. Forget that. Human beings, even little ones, only operate from their own motivation.
- If you really want to keep a standard, tell your kids why it is good for them. If you cannot think about any reason, keep looking. It could be giving them something to enjoy or taking away some discomfort they have. Your kids may give you some ideas themselves, if you ask them. Either way, the only standards that will remain standing are the ones you can convince them to follow.
- Most importantly, any expectation you relax will cause you to relax and will also help your kids relax. Relaxed people have a great time, especially when they are together. This is such a big reward it may just be worth overlooking a couple of socks on the floor.