Expectations. Have you ever spent time considering what role expectations plays in your life? A huge one. We have expectations about nearly every aspect of our lives. We don’t make decisions without having expectations around what things will be like and how we will benefit. We have developed a set of rigid expectations about how things “should go,” and then feel disappointed when they don’t.
Expectations for our ourselves
Whether it’s to be “successful,” to not make mistakes, to be liked or to keep things together, we have limiting and rigid expectations that leave little room for, well, humanness. When things don’t go as planned, we can become quite disappointed in ourselves. We become self-critical, cruelly judgmental, ashamed, humiliated and feel worthless or stupid. Just like we have expectations of situations and ourselves, we also expect a lot from our children. (Of course, not all expectations are bad. They can be helpful in clarifying family values, and can clearly show children what is completely unacceptable to us, as I call them: the “hard no’s.” )
Expectations and our children
For many parents, though, the expectations go too far. When we have little awareness around our expectations, they can be extremely limiting for children and cause a great deal of pain. The same feelings we experience when we don’t meet our own expectations (shame, humiliation, self-criticism) can be felt by children when parents bombard them with “shoulds” and “should nots.”
Think of the parents who set the expectation that their children should always be happy. When kids cry or become angry at a situation, parents will do just about anything to make these displays of emotion stop. Perhaps the belief systems of the parents’ own childhoods come into play, but what are we teaching our children when they are sad and we tickle them, or when they are angry and we tell them to stop? We are teaching them that their feelings (other than happy-go-lucky ones) are unacceptable and should be kept to themselves. Children grow up hiding behind a smiling mask, and learning manipulative ways to keep their other emotions at bay. They may feel there is something wrong with them for even having them. Then there are the parents that expect their children to be obedient at all times. There is no respect here for children’s true nature to be curious, to test limits, to individuate, to learn from their mistakes, to learn how to handle failure, to gain confidence from independence and self-determination.
We can be so focused on our expectations that we are blinded when children demonstrate “good” behavior. Because we expect so much, we only notice when the rules are broken, and thus, only acknowledge “bad” behavior. What is the harmful message to children here? I am bad. We must be mindful of this and think about how our expectations help or harm our children, the value of them, and the purposes they serve. Are our expectations guises for control?
In the book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, you will find recommendations of questions to ask yourself about your expectations in parenting. They recommend asking:
• Are our expectations realistic and age-appropriate?
• Do they contribute to our children’s growth?
• Are we expecting too much or too little?
• Are we setting our child up to experience unnecessary stress and failure?
• Do our expectations enhance our child’s self-esteem or do they constrict, limit, or belittle the child?
• Do they contribute to a child’s well-being, to his or her feeling loved and cared for and accepted?
• Do they encourage important human values such as honesty, respect for others, and being responsible for one’ s actions?
• Do our children have the room to try out different behaviors?
Living life without expectations is unrealistic and irresponsible parenting. However, when we are able to be mindful and intentional about what we expect out of our children, and let go of the ones that are destructive, something happens in the home. As Kabat-Zinn describes, “The atmosphere in the family becomes lighter, there is a feeling of spaciousness and balance, and room for everybody to grow.”