By definition, in order to be disappointed, your expectations must be higher than your perception of reality. I know many parents who are disappointed in their children, sometimes to the point of declaring their disappointment for the whole world to know, but as a parent looking from the outside, I think their expectations are just too high.
During life coach training, we discussed expectations and our instructor said that to be happier with our life, we should lower our expectations. I nearly exploded. I had grown up in a world that operated according to standards. I had been taught those standards, but never realized who had set them or where they had come from. They had just been there as facts of life, so lowering them was out of the question.
But when we broke for lunch, we kept talking about various situations that were causing us disappointment and robbing us of our happiness and it helped me to consider other people’s expectations without being emotionally involved. Since I had no attachment to their expectations, I could compare the options with a cool head just by looking at the outcomes.
For example, one of my course-mates (I will call her Fiona) lived in a blended family, in which she had two teenage children and her husband had two more. She spent most of our lunch break telling us how much better her own kids behaved and how rude her husband’s daughter was for leaving her clothes lying around and having a messy room, saying, “That’s no way to live. She leaves a mess all over the place and I have to pick up after her”.
I decided to be a bit of a pest and asked her, “Do you really have to pick up after her?”
“Of course I do”, she said quickly and confidently, “Somebody’s got to do it”.
“Really? What will happen if you leave her clothes lying around and wait?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried”, she said, her tone softening, “I supposed she’ll have to pick them up at some stage or she’ll have nothing left to wear. I guess this is just the way I grew up and how I raised my own kids and I’m having a hard time accepting her way of doing things”.
Fiona wanted very much to connect with her partner’s daughter, partly because that was another thing she expected herself to be able to do. As we talked about her circumstances, however, she gradually discovered that lowering her expectations did not mean compromising on the end goal, it only meant moving more slowly ahead. The upside was building a better relationship and being happier and much less disappointed than she had been. Another thing we found out was that when we focus too hard on our own expectations, we ignore even strong and recurring evidence that our expectations are unrealistic.
Would you expect a 2-month-old baby to get up and start walking? Would you expect a 3-year-old to be financially independent? Would you expect a 5-year-old to finish a master’s degree? Maybe if you nagged enough? Probably not.
If you do not expect these things, is that a compromise? Does this mean you are lowering your expectations from what should be? Is not expecting these things still mixed with any disappointment? Maybe just a little? Probably not.
Yet, when you give your 1-year-old a bowl of pudding, do you expect them to eat neatly? When you invite other kids for a sleepover with your kids, do you expect them to go to sleep at the usual time? When you mention dessert before dinner, do you expect your kids to eat a lot? When you put a TV in every room, buy each of your kids a laptop and leave them in charge or themselves, do you expect them to do their homework?
Do you expect your kids to do things around the house of their own accord? Do you expect them to keep secrets? Do you give them detailed instructions about every little thing and then expect them to become independent thinker? Do you expect them to comply with the rules at home and at school and to be happy?
If you think about it, reality shows you again and again they will make a mess, giggle until late, eat mostly dessert and watch movies when you are not looking. What makes you believe that by holding on to your expectations they may somehow be fulfilled? What makes you think that just by saying it enough times, your teenage daughter, who happens to be kinesthetic, will start tidying up her room?
In fact, if you keep thinking about it, you will realize that this is a major source of struggle, friction, stress and unhappiness for everyone involved, but mostly for you. You see, your kids may not even be aware of some of your unrealistic expectations, but you are aware of all of them.
So you do not have to “lower” your expectations. Instead, just give them a reality check and “adapt” them according to the results you get in real life with your real kids in real situations. Keep an open mind, question everything you expect, observe other parents and their children, talk to expert, read parenting blogs, ask the teacher and test, test, test.
Remember, parents are responsible for their children, so take responsibility for your own expectations and adjust them to suit your life and make everybody happier.
In a strange way, I have experienced both ways as a parent. When Eden was little, I expected her to be perfect – clean, polite, quick to learn everything and quiet whenever I wanted her to be. That put a lot of pressure on the poor thing and was very frustrating for me. One day, my in-laws came to visit us in California for Tsoof’s birth and I was making a big deal out of some spilled juice. My father-in-law took me aside and said, “When you yell at Eden, it makes her feel bad and fear you. Stop and think what actually happened here. She’s a 5-year-old kid, she spilled some juice and you can clean it up in under 20 seconds”.
When Noff was born, I was in a very different place. Whatever she did was good enough. She was cute, active, messy and loud, but I thought it was OK, because she was a kid. Let me tell you, it has been much better for both of us this way.
But expectations can be a good thing too when you use them wisely. You see, in the same way that my parents raised me to expect perfection, which resulted in disappointment from my imperfect life, Ronit and I have raised our own kids to expect their results to match their efforts. So now, when they put a good effort into something, they expect to do well and they do, but when they slack off, they are not disappointed and they know what to do to make things better.
Having realistic expectations also gives us parents fewer chances to criticize and a lot more chances to praise our children. This helps them build their self-confidence, which actually makes them do better over time. In fact, self-confidence is a far more important factor in success and happiness than study time, washing dishes, cleaning up rooms, keeping quiet, sitting up straight and many other things we expect from our kids.
So the next time you feel disappointed with something your child has said or done, ask yourself, “What did you expect?”