Things are interesting for us right now. I quit my job, we moved 1,000 miles north, and we’re spending our days in a completely different manner than we’re accustomed to. It’s a time of great change, to say the least. Change is scary for many people, but over the years we have seemed to thrive on it for some reason. Change can be hard because each change comes with a new set of expectations for all of us, individually and collectively. But for us, change also presents an opportunity to be introspective and ensure we’re on the right course, that our needs and wishes haven’t allowed us to drift too far from what is important to us or from the direction in which we were headed. Of course, change is much easier to navigate when it comes free of expectations of how things “should” turn out.
But it rarely does.
And those expectations can be very powerful, very tricky things.
Some of our expectations are focused only on ourselves, such as expectations of what our lives should be like, or how we should be behaving or performing. For example, it's easy for me to think back to all of the expectations I once had about how a family is supposed to operate. In my head, I had mapped out exactly what it takes to raise a child, be a husband, have a productive household, and be an accepted member of society. For me, it was pretty simple, really. Dad works, mom works; breakfast as a family with a healthy meal; lunches and book bags all packed the night before; kids on the bus and doing well at school; work being hard but rewarding; home by 6:00, kids all there, dinner together then chores; some time to play, then homework; then time to brush your teeth and put on your PJs, and off to bed by 9:30 or so. Of course, the kids would play sports, and I'd be a member of the Jaycees, mom would be on the Chamber of Commerce.
These expectations helped me in some ways, I suppose; they provided a clear picture of what things might be like, freeing my mind from needing to obsess over the various ways things might turn out for me. But they also provided a barrier, at once deep and tall, that I spent many years attempting to overcome. Over time, as the notions of what “could be” took root in my mind and in my heart, these expectations transformed my ideas of what “could be” into commitments to what “must be.” And “must be”s, of course, are highly dangerous. They restrict our ability to learn from our experiences because we already think we know the best path. They lead us to feel trapped, unable to alter destinies or even circumstances because we cannot see beyond them. They rob us of being able to see the possible because we already believe we know the probable. Simply put, they put blinders on us that limit our ability to see any further than whatever construct we have become comfortable with.
All people deal with this, to some degree or another. When you’re single, dealing with the negative aspects of expectations can be hard. When you’re in a committed partnership, it can be exceptionally difficult and potentially damaging. But when you’re a parent, it can be downright destructive unless you apply conscious effort to minimizing the expectations you have of yourself, your partner, and – most critically – your children.
Letting go of the expectation we have for our children is neither easy nor for the faint of heart, because these expectations – sometimes in the guise of hopes, dreams, wishes, or needs – often reside in places that we don’t even know about. We recognize the benefit of allowing our children to set their own parameters around tidiness, but mutter under our breath while we pick up their Pokemon cards. We understand that there is exceptional learning potential, and therefore exceptional value, in virtually everything they experience, yet we let out a sigh of relief and watch with them when they choose the History Channel over Cartoon Network. We get the importance of allowing a child to live their life through their own rhythm, but we ask them to go to sleep earlier. We know that they will fall down many times, but we expect that to stop by a certain age so they can be responsible people.
And then we try to sit back and let all of that happen naturally. We live with our needs, hopes, wishes, and expectations and convince ourselves that they are invisible to our children. We allow ourselves to believe that we can be disappointed without resentment. We allow ourselves to believe that we’re okay with the concept that every experience has value, even if it’s a “bad” one. We allow ourselves to believe that we can have expectations of our children, but that we can hide them well enough so as to prevent our kids from feeling the negative effects of those expectations.
But we can’t.
Wanting something – for yourself or for others – and then not acting on it is one of the hardest things we attempt in life. It always manifests itself in some way, usually right smack dab in the middle of one of our own blind spots. We are addicted to the things we want in our lives, and are generally powerless to control those addictions for long even if we are aware of them. We hope that someone will love us, so we do everything we can do be attractive to them. We wish we would be accepted, so we change ourselves to be more acceptable. We dislike the way someone else speaks or behaves, so we roll our eyes or sigh under our breath when they say things. We don’t do these consciously; they just happen. It’s a lot like riding a bike, actually; you ride along in a straight line until something catches your eye, and as soon as you look at it you immediately begin to drift that direction. You often don’t feel yourself drift toward your hopes and expectations until you’re off the road, but others see you drift immediately. It’s never invisible to them, only to you.
When we invisibly drift toward pre-conceived expectations we have of our children, we are not giving them the trust and tools they need to make their own choices and set their own course, thereby putting them in the exact same position as we were once in - unsure, fearful, with their parent's definition of happiness and success. So what’s the answer?
Try to alter your expectations, hopes and dreams for your children away from specific “head” topics – college, degree, marriage, money – and into looser “heart” ones, like happiness, peace, love, and passion. Because our expectations manifest themselves in ways that are visible to our children, “head” expectations are likely to push them down the path toward pre-defined traditional education choices and careers, with fewer opportunities for radically different choices. But “heart” expectations can take many guises. These types of expectations could lead them to college and corporate career, to be sure; but it is far more likely that this would be a path of their choosing as opposed to a path of convenience. It could also lead them to travel the world. It could lead them to a quiet career in the arts, or an “out loud” life doing things that we – and they – cannot even imagine yet. In other words, it can help them view their lives as ones of freedom and choice in which success is defined on their own terms and in their own time. It can help them see what it possible, rather than what is impossible or pre-ordained. And it can help them see that success when defined by the heart is more lasting and joyful than when defined by the head.
A few years ago, I wrote an oath to my kids. I revisit this oath whenever I feel off track or when I feel like my expectations of my kids are getting in their way.
I want you to be happy. I want you to see the world for all it can be. I want you to find the things you love to do and do them as much as you want. I want you to develop your own definition of success, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. I want you to know that I will support and love you, even if you're down. And I have only one real expectation and hope - that you believe what I just said, and that you call bullshit on me when I deviate.Now, those are expectations that I – and they – can live with.