Thursday, April 2, 2015

Expectations: Intentional and Otherwise

Although we may not always be conscious of it, most parents know that our expectations affect our children's behavior. Parents of toddlers quickly realize that the worst possible reaction to a fall is to gasp and show concern. Better to pretend you didn't notice and see if the child will dust himself off and keep playing.

I've been more aware of the expectations I convey to my children since listening to a fascinating podcast on This American Life, titled "Batman." The episode was the premier of the new NPR podcast Invisibilia, which I highly recommend, and the question it posed was: "Can other people's expectations of you alter what you can do physically?" It sounds preposterous, but the conclusion was a definitive "yes."

The podcast features a blind man, Daniel Kish, whose mother never told him that "blind people can't do that." If he wanted to do something, she let him try. He climbed fences and trees, walked to school alone, and even learned to ride a bike. As an adult, Kish takes long, unguided hikes in the woods, and he's trying to give other blind people this type of independence by teaching them his method, echolocation.

As a teacher, Kish has found the greatest hurdle to a blind child's independence to be her family's love. Parents love their child, fear she will get hurt, and limit what she tries. If the child doesn't try, she can never learn. If that child is blind, she remains physically dependent on others.

The podcast focuses specifically on Kish's story and blindness, but I found its applicability to parenting to be obvious. It made me consider what cues I'm giving my children about my expectations for them.

My husband and I are very clear about certain expectations for our children. From behavior to chores to school work, we are explicit about what we expect.

Do I set other expectations unintentionally? I forced myself to consider whether I limit what my children can achieve through my own expectations. Do I sometimes hold them back because of my own urge to protect them?

Of course I do.

I realized that I should let my son ride his bike farther away from our house than I do. And I should allow him to wander from home alone. My fear for his physical safety is disproportionate to the likely risk, so I've given him a little more free rein. (For my own peace of mind, I send him with my iPhone so that he can call home and I can surreptitiously track his whereabouts. Baby steps.)

When I was honest with myself, I acknowledged that my husband and I were not helping to improve our son's perception that he's "not good at sports." When he waffled about whether to try something new, we never said, "I think you can do it." Instead, we said it would be fun to be with friends or healthy to be active.

I've changed that message. This month, my son surprised us by enthusiastically signing up for track and field.

My daughter is a strong, independent child. This made her a difficult toddler and will make her a horrible teenager, but they are qualities that will serve her well in life. I've always made it clear to her that she is smart, strong, and can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

I recently found myself in the unusual position of conveying a different kind of expectation. I told my daughter that she could not solve a problem on her own. I told her that she not only shouldn't try, but probably wouldn't succeed if she did.

Another child has been acting out on the playground, and my daughter's anxiety about it caused her to become physically ill for weeks. Now that the situation is being closely monitored, I reassured my daughter that she has nothing to worry about. She is safe. I emphasized that, should she see anything inappropriate, she should not try to solve the problem herself; she should tell a teacher.

Her reaction surprised me. She told me she likes to be "independent." She likes solving her own problems. She doesn't want teachers intervening and doing it for her.

If only it always worked that way.

Even fierce people need help sometimes. And some problems can't be solved by sheer will.

I told her that she can't fix another child's problem. Kindness helps, but it likely is not enough in this situation. This child's behavior is beyond my daughter's control, and perhaps even beyond his own control. It's more than she can or should handle, which is why she must tell a teacher.

I've emphasized strength and independence for so long that it's going to take a while for my child to understand that I expect her to be vulnerable and I expect her to ask for help. I expect her to be human.

I hope she quickly internalizes that it's not a weakness, but a strength, to ask for help. That too will serve her well in life.

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The "Batman" podcast can be found at This American Life. I highly recommend it. I listened to it a second time with my kids, who were as fascinated by the story as I was, without drawing all the parenting connections that I did.

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