A big rule in our family is that if you're not feeling safe, respected, supported, or loved in a situation then it’s a good indication that you should not be in that situation. A few months back my little family was having a very emotionally charged time and my daughter was dealing with unsafe feelings associated with her other parent and we were back in court, again. Our family rule was born out of the necessity to teach my daughter that you don’t have to tolerate unkind words or dangerous behavior out of habit, fear, or lack of confidence. She goes between two homes that have a very different set of expectations of her and what she perceives as healthy, normal adult behavior got distorted. I realized, when this very emotional situation that occurred, my expectations on what I thought she should do did not match up with the emotional skill set she had. This realization came crashing down on my like a delicate, strategically placed house of cards. We had built this house card by card together, each making sure that we quietly placed the next card as to not upset the equilibrium of the whole structure. Each time an upsetting situation came about I was teaching her to walk on egg shells so as not to upset the person who we were in fear of. As soon as the house of cards fell apart I realized what I had been subconsciously doing and I quickly went about how to re-teach both of us. I had to adjust my expectations of her and myself as a parent and it’s a conversation I’ve had with other parents.
“Why can’t he do...?” Or “She doesn’t do....., but her brother did at her age.” These are a few of the things I will hear from parents. I understand how frightening it is when your child isn’t meeting developmental milestones that, say, your other children have or friends kids have. That fear, whether expressed or not, is in each and every one of us. We all want our children to lead happy, healthy lives full of hope and opportunity. But when does this come at the cost of your child’s confidence in the abilities they already have. I recently had a parent point out to me all the things their child was not doing “right” in their eyes, putting them down in front of them for not having the skill set they thought they should have. Understanding this came from fear, I tried to explain that their child will show us how they best learn and we will follow their lead. The conversation continued and the parent still focused on what they saw as the child’s “deficits”. A mental movie of all the parents I have had this very conversation with came streaming through my mind and the question they all wanted answered was will my child be ok? Will they have a rich, functional life in the community? Will they be happy? My answer? Your child will learn and grow, it’s our job to listen to what they need and help them along the way. It is our job to acknowledge and celebrate a child’s strengths and to work on the challenges. It is a child’s right to be seen as a unique individual, who is not like any other child we have met before, and for that uniqueness to be respected. This gives some parents some peace of mind, some not so much. But I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t say what any child will be like in the future. What I can say, after working with thousands of children, is that if you throw your (big YOUR here!) expectations of them out the window and meet them where they are at they will show you exactly how they learn.
So how do we do that? How do we get rid of our own expectations for our child? Doesn’t this damage the child? Doesn’t this seem to perpetuate the idea that that we should just leave them to their own devices and see what happens? No. No it does not. By accepting where your child is at, not where you wish they were right now, you are teaching them that who they are is perfect. That there are no improvements or challenges that would make you love them any less. You are accepting them for the person they are, and who doesn’t flourish in an environment of love and acceptance?
Have you ever been in a job where your boss was a live wire, just could be set off by the smallest things? Ever have a parent who continually pointed out that you were good, but you could be “better” or “perfect” if you did what they said? Been in any type of relationship where you were given the message that you just weren’t enough? Remember how exhausting it was to try harder, do better, be the best version of you that others thought you should be? Ever hear your parent talking to another, in front of you, about what you're not doing right? Did you feel invisible? How much time and energy was wasted on this toxic hamster wheel to try to attain the unattainable goals others had set for you? How much anxiety was bottled in your body while your mind endlessly went through off handed comments someone said about you? It sucked, right? So why would we want our kids to feel that way?
Now, I’m not saying let’s let raise kiddos that we allow to do anything without consequence. Far from it! I’m of the belief that children need structure and guidance to understand society, their place in it, rules that help us, and how to work best within their community for the overall good. There is a middle ground that we can work on and it starts by accepting one another for who we are. We can teach our children the skills they need along the way, using opportunities that come up as teachable moments. If your child isn’t making eye contact it doesn’t mean they never will, but in what situations is eye contact the most important? And who is it important for? By prioritizing the skills that are most important for your child to learn right now we are able to scaffold the learning so they can accomplish more lofty goals in the future. If you want your child to participate in cooperative play with others, then you need to start by facilitating parallel play with a trusted parent or friend to move on to reciprocal play with others. Breaking down the larger goals into smaller, bite sized, attainable benchmarks is key to successful learning. This is how we know what steps aren’t being mastered by a child and what we can do to change the way we present them to set a child up for success.
Another part of this process I like to share with families is what is your child going to teach you? How is your child helping you learn and grow as a parent? This is always a work in progress, but remember it’s progress not perfection we are going for. We are all on a learning curve here so, just like I’m asking you to not set unattainable expectations for your child, I don’t want you to set them up for yourself either. We are all learning here, and if we can do it together without judgement we are setting ourselves as parents up for success.