“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really does appreciate everything one does have.” – Steven Hawking
Think of three things you do (or used to do) really well. Now, think back to when they were introduced to you and the first time you attempted them.
If your “three things” involve an ability such as speaking or reading, and you cannot recall the first time(s) you attempted them because you were so young, that is okay – I will get back to that at the end of this post. But if those three things are something more recent in your life, such as hitting a baseball, speaking another language, or a task in your present job, chances are strong that you remember your first time and it was not an instant success.
A first time for everything
Our children are quite literally experiencing everything for the first time. Even if you believe that you have appropriately instructed them how to do something, when to act a certain way, or even what to say when prompted, for them to do so consistently takes practice. Practice requires repetition. And repetition requires patience, with instruction.
Getting upset because your expectations are not being met is completely understandable. What is required for good parenting, however – and required to avoid angry eruptions – is to align those expectations appropriately with reality. The simple fact about children of any age is that they are still developing, regardless of how many times you think you should have to tell them to do something.
Similarly, adults are still developing. After all, we are always taking on new challenges, be they a new hobby, navigating a construction zone, or buying a new cell phone. Think of the job you have now (or if you’re not working, the last job you had) and think about how you would have felt if the boss berated you in your sixth month of work for failing to have the wisdom and efficiency of a 30-year employee. This is often what we do to children when they fail to meet our expectations.
I yelled at my child
I admit that I barked at my two-year-old for failing to remember how to hold his cup without spilling it. Yes, I was upset that his mango juice spilled all over the carpet and I yelled. But then I checked myself; what about this disappointed me? Were my expectations properly aligned? Of course not. At two, his brain simply is not developed enough yet to store and generalize information like that. My anger was my bad, not his. Getting upset was about me, not him. He will not remember his first moments of learning how to handle a cup, but he will remember how I made him feel when he spilled it.
Expectations set to zero
If you recall, at the beginning of this post I mentioned the possibility of one of your “three things” being speaking or reading. Let’s come back to that. Think about my toddler carrying his cup. Now apply that same wisdom to teaching a child to speak or read, or interact at all.
When working with children – or anyone beginning a new task, for that matter – we must remain patient and keep our expectations at zero. That means getting rid of our “shoulds” and abandoning that which we think we know and embracing that which we have yet to learn. Or, in the case of children, that which we have yet to teach. Only then will we truly appreciate what we have in front of us: the chance to mold, shape, or influence another human being.
The gift of impacting others is precious and should be handled as such. Lessons are always better taught through compassion and grace than through anger and judgment. Before responding to a child’s failure, stop and think about how you want them to remember your response, especially in that vulnerable moment of their own letdown.
As for me, I choose kindness. I choose to align my expectations with reality. And then I have grace for myself when I fail to meet my own expectations. Because what better example for kids than to observe self-compassion?