Friday, April 6, 2018

Setting the Bar

I have a love/hate relationship with expectations. As a service provider, I know how critically important it is to set them appropriately. When each party knows what they're getting and giving, there's little room for undue disappointment. But setting expectations in parenting is different. We're talking about potential--what a kid should or should not be able to achieve at a certain age. While I've always thought of expectations as a way to help my kids stretch their abilities, I recently learned that if I'm not careful, they can also have the opposite effect. 

I loved that The Spare's freshman year of high school was a sort of 'joint venture' with the Heir,  a senior. It helped the Spare feel safe and welcomed in the new school; he made friends with older students, and knew his brother had his back. 

But this year, The Spare headed off to high school on his own. No, he didn't have his brother's guiding presence, but he was also no longer a newbie. I had every faith he would continue to strive for honor roll-level grades, as he had the year before. 

Things started off fine. He didn't want me to buy him a planner, so I conceded and let him organize his work on his own terms. When his grades started to slip in the second marking period, I questioned him, offered to help him study, emailed with his teachers and pushed him to work harder. I also gave him a pocket-sized notepad to keep track of homework. But by December break, I could see it wasn't working well. There were no dates in it, and he often neglected to write things down. 

By the time the third marking period arrived, I told The Spare I was buying him a planner and I expected him to use it. When shopping for one, I took his preferences into consideration. He wanted something small he could carry in his pocket, but it needed to have enough room for all his classes' assignments. I searched around until I found one that seemed perfect. But then, before buying it, I paused. 

The Spare is a bit scattered, both in his thoughts and his actions. This was my attempt to help him get organized, and I was looking at a planner that I would choose for myself for that purpose. But when I considered his scattered nature, and the very real possibility that he could end up losing anything pocket-sized, I selected a similar but inexpensive pocket calendar instead. 

I had high hopes that, as a sophomore, he'd be mature enough (and understanding of my concern and expectations) to carry, use and make the most of this new tool.  For a couple of weeks, he seemed to be. But then, as I'd feared, he lost it. 

Part of me was disappointed. Why did I even buy the thing? Another part of me shook my head. I knew this was going to happen. At least I had only spent $2.99 and not $11. I had made that choice unwillingly when buying the planner, but knowing it might be necessary. I was bummed to have been right.

Here's the thing. We want our kids to succeed, to do their best, build their confidence and make their way in the world. That is the understanding all parents have--that one day, our kids will move out and no longer need us. So whenever I try to help move my kids toward that goal and they don't seem to be progressing, I feel frustrated. Disappointed. And yes, sometimes angry. Why isn't he trying harder? Why doesn't he take the help I'm offering? Why isn't he meeting my expectations?

That's the phrase that made me step back: my expectations. Why do I have these expectations in the first place? Who am I to say he's not fulfilling his potential? He is not The Heir. He is who he is. How am I so sure he even has the emotional or physiological ability to do these things yet? 

The fact is, I can't be sure. So I need to do something that, a decade ago, I'd have scoffed at: I'm lowering the bar. Because no kid, on seeing a look of disappointment on his mom's face or hearing the dejection in her voice, is going to be inspired to try harder. He's not going to feel good about himself. And the more it happens, the more convinced he'll be that he is nothing more than a disappointment to her. And that's not what I want my kid to think. 

There's a popular saying that floats around the internet: 

“Everybody 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.” 

The point is, as parents we need to put aside expectations we have of our kids and just keep loving and cheering them on. Eventually, each of our little fishes will find the ocean that suits him best, and swim off into his own life. Better to make the short time we have with them uplifting and positive, even if it means sometimes lowering the bar.