When We Expect More of Our Children than of Ourselves

When We Expect More of Our Children than of Ourselves March 1, 2015

Some months ago Sally left the family iPad in a store. She had been reading interactive storybooks when it ran out of batteries, so she put it on the rack under the cart and subsequently forgot about it. We didn’t realize it was missing until we got home. Needless to say, I was not happy. Actually, I was really quite upset. Sean took Sally back to the store to look for it, but they couldn’t find it.

I’m afraid to say that I was more than a little stern with Sally. I didn’t punish her (after all, it was an accident), and I didn’t yell at her (I try really hard not to do that, ever), but she knew full well that I was upset with her. I made it crystal clear that this would mean no more playing games or reading storybooks on the iPad, because I wanted her to feel the enormity of what she had done. And yes, there were tears.

But then, later that evening after Sally was in bed, I remembered that a few weeks before this I had done essentially the same thing. I had left my own iPad on our local college campus, in the front of a classroom. As soon as I realized what I’d done I had freaked out and gone straight to campus to look for it. Fortunately, I had found it right where I had left it several hours earlier.

And here I was angry with Sally for making the exact same mistake I’d recently made myself.

Now I’m not saying I was wrong to make sure she understood the enormity of her mistake. But she’s five, and it’s a mistake I’ve made too, and I’m closing in on thirty. I shouldn’t have been angry at her, I should have been angry at myself for expecting a five-year-old to be able to keep track of an iPad and not checking up on it myself. And in some sense I was upset with myself, I was simply taking it out on Sally by blaming her to justify my unrealistic expectations.

How often do we expect more of our children than we do of ourselves?

Let me give you another rather different expectation. If Sean is in the kitchen and I’m upstairs getting some work done and he calls me to help him with something, I will frequently respond by saying I’ll be there in a minute, and then get to a stopping point in what I’m doing before I go see what he needs. And vice versa. I suspect the same is true of most people. And yet, I’ve often seen parents expect their children to immediately drop everything and come running when called.

I very intentionally don’t expect Sally to drop everything when I call her. Usually she does what I do—she’ll say “Just a minute!” and then wrap up what she’s working on before coming. Of course, if it’s urgent, I’ll respond with “No, I need you now, it can’t wait!” and then she’ll come right away, just as I would if Sean responded in the same way. I try to remember that Sally is a person, just like me, with a similar (though not identical) range of emotions, needs, and desires.

The same is true of other things as well. There are days when I’m quite simply in a bad mood, and while I try not to take it out on others I can’t just flip a switch and suddenly be in a good mood. And yet, I see children who are having a bad day accused of having “bad attitudes.” Are children not allowed to have bad moods and good moods just like adults? Why do we expect to be able to control our children’s emotions while we ourselves would not surrender our own emotions to another’s control?

Of course, this works the other way too. When Sally can’t keep her space clean or doesn’t want to clear her dishes from the table, I remind her of all the things I do—cleaning house, or cooking meals, or washing dishes—and that it’s not unreasonable to expect her to chip in herself in age-appropriate ways. When she sees that I’m not holding her to a standard I don’t hold myself to as well, Sally tends to understand that what is asked of her is reasonable and to respond appropriately (though not always without grumbling!).

In the end, we need to see our children as more like ourselves and less like beings foreign from ourselves. Yes, children are still learning what is and is not appropriate, and their emotions are still developing, but they are in many ways less different from us than we often assume. And in this vein, we need to not expect things of them that we don’t expect of ourselves.

On that day several months ago, I expected Sally to be able to keep perfect track of an iPad while out and about—something I myself had not been able to do. Yes, my expectation was not age appropriate, but more than that, it was an expectation I myself had proven unable to live up to less than a month before. The next morning, I apologized to Sally for being so upset the night before. I told her that I had left my own iPad on campus, just like she left the family iPad in the store, and that I understood that sometimes we just make mistakes. We exchanged strategies for keeping track of things, and our conversation ended in a very positive place.

This story has a happy ending. Several days later, the store called and said someone had turned the iPad in. I don’t know why it took several days for someone to turn it in, especially when all the carts had been searched and nothing had come up, but we were grateful they did. We still have that iPad today, and we haven’t lost it since. But as unfortunately as it would be to lose something as valuable as an iPad, I value my relationship with Sally far more highly, and am glad that I was able to take a step back and see that I was holding her to expectations that I had not myself been able to meet.

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