“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”
As a self-professed perfectionist I have always had high expectations. It is a personality trait that can be both positive and negative. If you want something done well you can rely on me but I often grill myself throughout the process of achieving perfection in what I set out to accomplish. I’m a lot more relaxed now, but in the past I would get an idea in my head of how things should be or how I thought they should be and that became all I could see.
Expectation takes on many forms, from what we expect of ourselves, to what we expect of others and what they expect of us. We can have high expectations, low expectations, large expectations, small expectations, realistic expectations and unrealistic expectations, which arise either every now and then or a hundred times a day.
When we expect, we live in anticipation. We are wanting something to happen, we are waiting for something to happen. We are looking forward to it or striving towards it. We are looking to the future rather than living in the present.
It is our preconceived ideas of how things should be.
Our expectations of children
From the moment a child is born we immediately begin to place ‘expectations’ on them. We have expectations for their birth, sleep, feeding, and toileting. Expectations for age, gender, emotions, behaviour, growth, development, learning and more…
We are told what we should expect and when. The number one best selling book to purchase during pregnancy is “What to EXPECT when you’re expecting” (which was actually quite helpful).
When my son was born I was told to “expect” that he would feed every 2hours for about 20 minutes. That he would sleep often and should have some awake time for 1-2 hours between naps. During the night if he slept for more than 3 hours I had to wake him for a feed and ideally he should have between 6-8 wet nappies within 24 hours.
I was told to “expect” that he would need solids by six months, be walking at around one, talking by two, sleeping through the night by three, toilet trained by four and writing by five.
Just thinking about all these expectations is exhausting. They put so much pressure on us and our children. Essentially, they take us away from our children’s natural rhythm and direct us towards the clock or calendar.
We love our children and want the best for them but the thought of our children not meeting these expectations causes us to worry and has us pushing them into things before they are ready. We have come to believe that it is our job to help, assist and prepare them; to sit up, to strengthen their muscles, to walk, to use the toilet, and to eat.
We have come to believe that it is our responsibility to ensure these expectations are met within a certain timeframe. It is our job to ensure that they learn to share, to listen, to follow instructions, to use their manners, to pick up after themselves, to be kind to others, to eat well, and to be respectful. We have come to believe that it is our job to mould them into these perfect little adults. But is it? Is it our job to shape them into who WE think they should be?
I used to think so, but now I realise that we don’t actually need to ‘teach’ our children these things. We don’t need to push them to learn. Learning comes naturally to a child. If we stand back, provide opportunities, role model and LOVE them, they will learn in their own time, when they are developmentally ready.
“Allow your children their childhood without trying to pull them faster than nature allows.”
As a child gets older we expect more from them. We have a few big expectations that we are aware of but also many smaller expectations which we may not even notice. Most of us don’t even realise we have these expectations until something happens which causes us to become severely disappointed or frustrated.
A perfect example of this happened just the other day.
We had been rushing around all morning to get the house ready for visitors who were coming to stay. I was trying to juggle a handful of jobs, all at the same time. I remember feeling that I needed to slow down, but I also felt like I couldn’t. I had asked my son to do something a million times and eventually when he still hadn’t done it, I got angry. In the midst of my own chaos I yelled “why aren’t you listening to me, I need (expect) you to listen to me when I speak to you”. My strong willed, confident, young man immediately whipped around and responded with “MUM, I can’t listen to you right now, I have to listen to my body!” Stunned, I had no reply. I said “ok” and walked away.
I realised in that moment that my own expectation was interfering with what he was doing and that what he was doing in that moment was far more important than what I wanted him to do. When I realised I felt guilty but I also felt incredibly proud. Proud that he listened to himself, stood up to me and expressed himself so clearly. His response pulled me back. I realised what had happened and sat down with a cup of tea.
As I thought, I realised that not once had I stopped and connected with him. I didn’t even know what it was that he was doing. I was in so much of a rush that I was just throwing commands at him in passing, expecting him to listen to me and expecting him to do as he had been asked. After all, he is nearly five and five year olds should be able to do that right?
Wrong! To be honest if he was an adult who was deeply involved in a project, I doubt he would have dropped everything in an instant. If it were me, I probably would have waited until I had finished what I was doing before stopping to help. I don’t think I would ever expect that of any adult, yet for some reason I expected it of my child.
Where do these expectations come from?
As we grow up we tend to take on the expectations of those around us, until we rewrite them ourselves.
Our expectations are formed through our own upbringing, inherited values, cultural beliefs, and pressures from society. We develop attitudes and assumptions about children and the role of adults through our experiences which become ingrained in us and shape our view of how children should think, learn, develop and behave.
We often justify our expectations with a belief that we need them. But if you stop and think about it, how do you feel when others expect things of you? When your partner, child, co-workers or employer expects you to do something? When someone feels expected to do something they no longer have the freedom to choose, it removes free will. They no longer do something because it comes naturally or because they want to, they do it because they feel they have to.
“Peace begins when expectation ends”
All children (and adults) respond better when we work together in partnership. When we do things for love and self-satisfaction, rather than because we are expected to.
We can’t just erase the expectations that have become part of us but we can be more mindful of them. We can do this by becoming aware and asking ourselves “Are these expectations reasonable?” and “Are these expectations necessary?”
How do expectations affect children?
When we meet or exceed expectations we get a temporary sense of fulfilment. In terms of academic outcomes, having high expectations has shown to be beneficial and positively impacts on a students performance, but expectations can also be detrimental.
A few studies have concluded that having high expectations of our children is a good thing and will make them more successful but successful in the eyes of whom? What is the definition of success; employment opportunities, leadership, and profit? What about happiness, life satisfaction, mental health and self-esteem?
One finding found that “what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy." In the case of children, they live up to their parents' expectations. They live up to what someone else wants them to be rather than what they want to be themselves.
When we don’t meet these real or perceived expectations, we don’t feel like what we have done is good enough. We don’t feel good enough. When expectations are consistently higher than we are able to achieve we experience self-doubt, a lack of confidence and symptoms of anxiety. It can create a ‘weakness’ or deficit mindset and contribute to patterns of negative self-talk
How do expectations affect us as adults?
Expectation is an unhealthy attachment to outcomes we try to control. It feeds frustration and causes us to worry.
When our expectations aren’t met it often leads us to say unkind words, act unreasonably, or make poor decisions. We become disillusioned and suffer as a result.
I had many expectations of my children, more so behavioural than developmentally. I expected they would get dressed when asked, I expected that they would sit nicely to eat, I expected that they would listen when being spoken to and be respectful, but all these expectations led to my own frustration.
Now as much as possible I try not to expect anything. I believe my children are doing the best they can in each moment. Sometimes you don’t want to get dressed or tidy up by yourself, sometimes you have an urge to sing at the table and eat with your hands and sometimes there is stuff going on internally that gets in the way of what you need to do. When I let go of my expectations I found that I let go of my need to push and rush to do what everyone else was doing.
When we base our expectations only on what we see within our knowing, we blind ourselves from all other possibilities. It distorts our perception and directs us away from our heart. We don’t appreciate our children for who they are, because all we see is who we want them to be. It prevents us from admiring the beauty of what is unfolding before us, because we are so focused on our own limited view of what is possible.
“We must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectations.”
When we are hopeful we don’t attach ourselves to the outcome, we have an intention but we trust that things will happen as they are meant to.
How do we move past our expectations?
It is so easy to get caught up in our beliefs about what children should do or how things should be. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what children in general do, what most children of a certain age do, what boys or girls can do, what a sister or brother does. What matters is the individual child, in that moment.
So often we base our expectations on what a child is usually capable of, but no one is the same person from one moment to another. A child that is feeling well and rested will not behave the same way as when they are tired, hungry, or emotional.
Let go of expectations:
The secret is letting every situation be what it is,
instead of what we think it should be.
When I let go of expectations I began to accept my children for who they are and where they are at. When I let go of expectations I feel like I let go of an invisible barrier that had worked its way between us. When I let go of expectations I began to trust my children. When I let go of expectations I began to live in the present and began to appreciate each moment. When I let go of expectations I opened a door for them, I allowed them to listen to their own internal voice instead of mine. I allowed them to make their own decisions and judgements and removed my need for control. When I let go of expectation I realised that LOVE has no expectations.
“Truly loving another means letting go of all expectations. It means full acceptance, even celebration of another’s personhood.”
The beauty in difference:
Out of my two children my son was the first to talk, but it took him a lot longer to master walking. My daughter has only just begun talking but she was rolling over at 3 months. As a teacher I have had a child that struggled to hold a pencil, but he was the first to ride his bike without training wheels at 3 years. I have had children that can count to 100, but don’t have the ability or self-control to manage their emotions. And I’ve had a child who at 4 years couldn’t maintain focus for a short story, but could easily sit for over an hour creating a complex construction out of intricate materials.
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
We need to see each persons strengths rather than the aspects of them that WE feel don’t quite measure up. We have to stop expecting that each person will fit into the same box. We have to stop expecting each child to be the same, to do the same and need the same. Then we will be begin to see beauty in our differences.
Why is it we view difference as a negative or a weakness? What if it was a positive? The things that make us different from others are our greatest assets. When we “SEE” children and celebrate their strengths we teach them that uniqueness is their power.
It is important now more than ever that we empower children by allowing them to develop their own identity and personal strengths. They need to believe in themselves so they become the best possible versions of themselves.
In a life filled with endless expectations let’s choose acceptance.
When we trade our expectations for acceptance the world changes instantly. Nobody is perfect, not us and not our children. To be honest, I don’t think there is such a thing. We are all perfectly imperfect and need to accept and embrace ourselves and each other for who we are.
My Dad once said to me “stop trying to be a peach when you’re a plum”. That has stuck with me for a long time. When we are expected to be like each other, we start trying to be like each other.
We can often look to nature for our pearls of wisdom. You can’t be a peach if you’re a plum and you can’t be a plum if you’re a peach. If a child is a peach, accept them as a peach. Allow them to embrace being a peach. We can’t change who we are and we can’t change who our children are.
Every peach was once a seed. Even as a seed, the peach already has everything inside it, everything it needs to become a tree. The seed is not an empty shell, the seed is already a peach.
We could EXPECT that if we plant the seed it would take a few years to grow into a tree. We could try to hurry the process in the hopes it will grow faster. We could tell the seed what it needs to do and how it should grow. We could even offer our opinion on what it should become; OR we could ACCEPT that if we plant the seed it will grow into a tree in its own time and in its own way.
It doesn’t matter what we say or do the seed will become what’s inside it. A peach, will become a peach, when it’s ready to become a peach. If we want it to grow up to become a pear, that’s not going to happen. If we push and pull in the hopes it will grow faster, that’s not going to happen either… But when left to grow freely, in the right conditions it will thrive.
All children are born to grow, born to learn, to live and to love. They already are everything they are capable of becoming. Acceptance doesn’t always come naturally but it is something we all long for. It is something I wish for myself and something I will not deny my children.
Acceptance is being present and appreciating what is. When we let go of who we think our children are supposed to be and embrace who they are, we empower them. Accepting our children as they are is love. When we love and accept our children completely, we fill them with love and acceptance of themselves and they learn to love and accept others.
“If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to find love in the world.”