Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Do You Expect?

December is a whole month filled with expectations. We’re all expecting something – a present under the tree, a few days of vacation, visits from family, stress, snow, or maybe just homemade Christmas candy.
I’ve been musing on expectations lately for lots of reasons. I coach a group of pre-teen girls in an incredible national program called, Girls on the Run. I get the chance to know these girls on a different level then as a parent or a friend’s parent. I enjoy hearing what they think about a wide variety of social and health issues. And it is exciting to see them train for and complete their first 5K. Listening to them this fall as we ran our laps or “checked in” at the beginning of our sessions, I heard their frustration with their teachers’ expectations and their assumptions of their parents’ expectations. When asked about their own expectations they get giggly or quiet, and then tell me they expect to have fun. I wish that was all the world was expecting of them.

As the weeks passed they girls regaled me with tales of the lunchroom. Seems their expectations of lunch and the administrations expectations were worlds apart. At our school, sixth graders rule. They have been in this building for seven years and it is theirs. So when new regulations are pressed on them that include expectations of quiet during the lunch hour (actually more like 30 minutes), they protest a bit. And the protests have been getting louder and messier. I’m not sure what this will lead to in the spring when sixth graders tend to be notoriously wild - their last chance to be top of the heap before fall when they will gather at the middle school as lowly 7th graders.

The thing about the lunchroom battles that is evident to me is that everyone has a different set of expectations. The kids expect some free time to carry on with their friends – laugh loudly, tease each other, and maybe get a little rowdy. The staff expects them to sit in their seats and keep their voices down. Now the expectations have shifted. The kids to be yelled at for any move they make, and have recess and other privileges revoked for the smallest infraction (their interpretation). The staff expect the kids to be out of control, throwing food and insults, and generally ignoring authority. Comments are made about a grade that is disrespectful, difficult, and unruly.

As I’ve said before, I’m not in the lunchroom, so really I have no place even writing all this, but it’s a free internet and this is my blog so I will. I think the basic problem here isn’t disobedient sixth graders or mean staff. I think both sides need to change their expectations. And maybe they could share their expectations with each other. Respect begets respect I find. Maybe the sixth graders won’t listen. Certainly within the realm of possibilities. But then, what do you expect?

Now let me tell you another story of teachers, students, and expectations. My older son is in eighth grade. At the end of summer when we received his class assignments, he discovered he had an English teacher who is known far and wide around here for her expectations. She expects her students to work hard, really hard. She expects them to learn. She cuts no breaks. She treats them like they are high school students because she sees her job as not only teaching them 8th grade English, but also preparing them for their high school careers. As she said on Back to School night to a room full of expectant parents – “no college will ever request your child’s 8th grade transcripts”. So she pushes them to be real students, knowing that they may fail at times. She expects them to take their education seriously, because she does. And you know what? They do it. Or at least most of them. If you don't set that bar high, there's no reason to expect very much.

I tell you these stories because in all my years of working with kids, my own and other people’s, it’s very clear to me that kids will fulfill your expectations. Whether you vocalize them or not, kids know what you’re expecting. If you’re expecting them to be difficult, lazy, indifferent, or rude, they will be. And if you’re expecting them to smart, caring, creative, and fun, they will be. I believe there are some studies out there that prove me out.

I will be the first parent to admit that sometimes I have pretty negative expectations for my children, especially at the holidays. They will be wild. They will be out of control. They will only think of themselves. And I know that when I change my expectations (or someone helps me change them, thanks honey), the results are dramatic. I find it extremely helpful to let my kids know what I expect. This worked really well when they were small. I remember taking my wild 5-year-old shopping in a dish factory outlet with my mother. At the door I told him – “There are lots of amazing things in here! And you may look at all of them! But if you would like to touch any of these things, you must first ask me.” It worked like magic. We broke nothing and discovered that rubberized nonstick basting brushes feel really funny in your ear.

All this thinking about expectations made me consider my incredibly disobedient, incorrigible puppy. She’s almost two, but she is still a puppy in my mind because she is so bad. And I tell her she’s bad all the time. In fact, I’d say I expect her to be bad. And she fulfills my expectations. When I let her go with me up to the barn to feed the horses, she chases the chickens, scattering them far and wide. And then she runs in the pasture and rolls in horse manure. And the whole time I’m yelling for her. But she doesn’t even look in my direction. She won’t even acknowledge my presence. Which makes me mad. Really mad. I hate dogs that don’t come when you call them. So I mutter and curse and do my chores. And when she doesn’t come when it’s time to go in, I leave her to the dark and the cold. And vow never to take her with me out to the horses again.

She is my running partner too, and I have extremely low expectations on our runs. I know that if another dog appears in any yard that we pass, she will forget that I exist, so I start jerking on her choke chain the moment I see another dog and we struggle past, Gracie gasping for air and me saying things I hope no one can hear above all the barking.

So I’ve decided to change my expectations of my dog. And I realize I need to communicate these expectations to her and that isn’t easy since she doesn’t speak English or listen to anything I say. But I am going to start by not calling her a rotten horrible puppy. Her new name is “Good Dog”. I’m going to praise her more and when she wants to jump on the kids or chase them and bite their fingers, I’m going to distract her with an ear rub and remind her that she doesn’t chase children. When I find her with the insert from my favorite pair of shoes, I’m not going to take the inserts and smack her with them and call her all kinds of unkind things, I’m going to exchange the insert for one of her six thousand chew toys scattered all over my house and remind her that she doesn’t chew shoes, she chews ugly stuffed bunnies.

I’ve heard it said that there is freedom in having no expectations. That sounds so wonderfully Zen-like. But we all have expectations of our children, our families, our pets, our friends. I don’t care what Buddha says, it’s impossible to have no expectations. It’s human nature, so don’t beat yourself up for it. Here’s the thing, if you’re going to have expectations, and you are because you can’t help it, why not expect good? Why not expect kindness? What happens when we treat people the best we can because we expect the same from them? Maybe we won’t always get the best from people. Maybe. But I’m fairly certain that if we expect people to disappoint us, they probably will.

Christmas time is crazy when you have kids at home. No way around it. Expect it. And you can’t change that by simply chanting, “I expect my children to be quiet and obedient little cherubs this year…” Expectations have to be grown in the soil of reality. But realistically – why can’t this be a great Christmas? What are you expecting? I’m expecting there to be chaos, but amongst that I expect there will be moments of joy. I expect my kids to be emotional and excitable and I expect that it will require more patience from me so I don't disravel into yelling and threatening. I expect my kids will want to wake me up before the sun, so I’m going to plan for that. I’ll tell them they can’t get up until 7am. And expecting that this will be difficult for them, I’ll leave a small present from Santa on the end of their bed. Something that will keep them busy (and quiet) until 7. Sometimes our kids need a little help living up to our expectations.

What are you expecting this Christmas? More than that, what are you expecting next year? Expect good things. Good things from your kids, good things from yourself, good things from this world. There's no reason to expect anything less.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"It's the Hap-Happiest Season of All...."

There are beautiful blue and white snowflakes edging my front porch and the sides of the porch are glittering with icicles. The railing of my back deck is wound in brilliant glowing colors. We have Christmas lights! OK, so maybe this is no big deal for you. I’ve seen your house glowing from the interstate with a Santa on the roof and holiday greetings superimposed on your garage door, but for me this is big.

I love holiday lights. Love them. For many years my husband has just shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something unintelligible before slinking away every time I suggested a single strand. When confronted, he has always protested that he has nothing against Christmas lights. I’ve pointed out all the perfect pine trees growing near our house that would look spectacular in lights. And every year, the lights I helpfully lug up from the basement sit in their plastic bin collecting dust until after the holiday when I’ll lug them back downstairs. Some years I’ve compensated by decorating our stair railing in lights and sometimes even the kitchen doorway. It’s festive, but it’s not the same.

This Thanksgiving my little brother arrived with pictures of his over-the-top already decorated house in North Carolina. I loved it and oohed and ahhed and then teased my husband about the fact that he doesn’t like lights. He did his whole indifferent schtick and avoided the subject. But then my little brother asked me why I didn’t just put up the lights myself. Huh? I told him I didn’t think I could figure out how to attach the lights to the gutter without damaging the house (and causing my hubby to say, “see….this is why I don’t like the lights”). But then my brother told me about these nifty little plastic things you could buy at Walmart that made it really simple. And as much as I’m opposed to all things Walmart and all things small and plastic that will end up in the Great Garbage Patch, I found myself toting home a box of 300 clips for just 5 bucks.

But here’s the dilemma for those of us who worry about the earth and our electric bill. How can I in good conscience hook up my 15-year-old energy-hogging lights that date back to the days before I married Scrooge? Back to the store I went to get LED lights – snowflakes and icicles even! The boxes sat on the counter and garnered many reactions. The kids were thrilled – we’re gonna have lights!?! My guilt nagged at me – how could you buy that cheap, plastic crap that will just use up energy needlessly? And my husband pointedly ignored them.

When I finally mentioned to my hubby that I was going to put up the lights myself with my nifty plastic hooks, he caved. In his best scrooge voice, he said we could do it together. I told him I’d only hang lights with him if he hummed Christmas carols while we worked. Finally, a chuckle from ole’ Scrooge. And that is how we came to have lights all around our house.

If I try I can get myself in a tizzy about the lights. We don’t need them. They serve no purpose. They are wasteful. What if they set my house on fire? I spent money on new ones because they were more energy efficient, but now the old ones are just sitting in my basement. So while those lights may be more green, just how green are they if they’ve added to the excess in my life and the world? See, I’m good at tying my head and heart in knots.

But here’s the thing. (And I gave a similar rant last year about why I love Christmas letters) The holidays mean something. And the lights are part of that. There’s the deep spiritual meaning this time of year for people of several different religions – that’s pretty big. But there is also this collective time of giving. Everybody is more generous in December. And even if they are motivated by guilt or habit or obligation – the end result is that people are generous. They are gentler with each other. They gather for holiday meals in restaurants and churches and conference rooms. They smile more, shake hands, give hugs, cards, gifts, cookies, and wishes. Perfectly normal and professional people wear ugly sweaters and jingle bells. They get a day or two off work. Sure it’s a shame that it doesn’t last all year – there are plenty of cards and sermons lamenting that fact, but for a little while it’s here. And I’ll take it.

So I love the lights and the music and the excuse to shower the people I care about with my baking, my gifts, my affection. It’s a chance to send cards to all the people I know and gifts to the niece and nephews that are scattered across the country. It is a lot of work. But it only happens once a year. And I’m willing to stress about the lights and fight the traffic and crowds and fall in to bed exhausted after making too many truffles, because the pay off is huge – happy people. A chance to remember that we are incredibly blessed.

And my scrooge? He’s softening. I came home to find Christmas lights hung like garland around our bedroom. This time of year is magical. Embrace it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Whole New Generation

In general, I avoid kid movies. I occasionally stomach them when I can’t avoid it, but for the most part, I find something else to do on movie night. I know, I know, this is the family tradition of the our era – the whole family hunkered down in the dark living room eyes fixed on the latest flick with popcorn in every lap. But kids’ movies get on my nerves. Beyond the obvious plots and dumbing down of the humor, I can only suspend reality so far before I start making snide remarks. So it’s best if I avoid the whole scene.

Last night we had an impromptu family night to re-watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was Friday night’s movie. The kids REALLY wanted their father and I to watch it. So we did. The whole thing. I kept waiting for some poignant moment when it would become obvious why they insisted we watch the movie, but mostly I spent the entire time being annoyed with the horrible, self-obsessed, shallow lead character. And apparently there are four more books centered around him. In the end he makes some retribution for his horribleness, but it was too late for me to be impressed.

All morning I’ve been contemplating that movie and why it was that my kids insisted I watch it. Maybe it was to make sure I understood just how awful middle school is and how much pressure they are under. I asked several times if the scene on the TV was representative of the scene at their schools, and they assured me it wasn’t quite that bad. But I do remember how awkward it is to be a middle schooler. I hope my own children will be a little more clued in than I was.

I worry that we are handicapping them by not having cable, satellite, or high-speed internet. We have no hand held games, Wii, or Nintendo. The only screen we have to fight about is the computer screen and there are plenty of battles over that. In fact, the bigger the battles over the screen the less likely I am to tell the kids that just last week they finally ran cable down our street. We’re toying with the idea of high-speed internet, but I’m loathe to poison our happy existence with a high speed invasion. Right now, the lack of screens leads my kids to play elaborate imaginative games, read books, build things with legos and marbles, create artwork, write stories, and spend hours outside.

They aren’t completely ignorant. They’ve played video games at other kids’ houses. We spend time at the library exploring the World Wide Web. And we have a subscription to Netflix for our weekly movie night. The free television that comes over the airwaves to our house enables us to watch football and baseball and Nova. And on Saturday mornings the major networks still show cartoons and ridiculously trendy (and stupid) kid sitcoms.

That’s still much more media exposure than I had as a child. And it makes me wonder what kind of generation we are raising. These kids are addicted to screens. They know how to react to all kinds of elaborate games, but could they create a computer program? I myself, think the computer works by magic – nothing else within my limited brain capacity could explain how it can open eight web pages at once while I am editing my latest post and listening to the new Rosanne Cash CD my step-mother-in-law sent me.

Our children witness endless stories on TV and online, many that push the limits of their emotional maturity, but could they write an original tale? They laugh and gawk at reality TV, but can they tell the difference between “reality” on TV and real life reality? Will they expect this world to be as entertaining or dramatic or exciting as what they experience online and in their living rooms? More to the point, will they be able to cope with disappointment, difficulties, boredom, and hard work?

There is a flipside to all this. Because these kids have been exposed to so much, maybe they will be more understanding of people with differing ethnicities, opinions, or lifestyles. Maybe these kids will believe anything is possible because they see the realm of possibility challenged on a daily basis. Maybe they will believe they can do anything they set their minds to since they’ve seen all manner of humankind accomplish unlikely feats. My younger brother spent all his spare change and every spare moment in the arcades of our youth. He held the high score on hundreds of machines. Guess what he’s doing today? He’s still playing video games – only on the government’s dime. He’s an air force fighter pilot. After years of flying combat missions, he spends his days teaching young pilots in the simulators. He let me try the simulator once, I crashed in minutes. Lacking the hand-eye coordination and quick decision making skills he garnered during all those long afternoons in the arcades, I was hopeless.

It’s impossible to say whether being exposed to too much or very little media will help or hinder our kids. As a parent I know all too well that I can’t predict my kids and the days of controlling their daily activities and decisions (or the illusion of that control) are quickly passing. At this point, our best bet is to support them and love them and continue to expect things from them – things like following the rules, treating others with respect, and taking personal responsibility for their actions. Those are much bigger issues than how much TV they watch.

So as you battle over the screens, remember the battle isn’t about the screen, it’s about the parameters you’ve set as a parent. Don’t make the screen the bad guy (I’m guilty of this!), it’s no more the bad guy than too much candy, not cleaning up after yourself, or not doing your homework. It’s not that they should shut down the screen, it’s that they should do their homework or practice their saxophone or take the dog for a walk or clean up the mess they left in the living room. Focus on the things they should do and let the screen take its place where it should – in their spare time.

Me? I’m still not going to allow open-access to the screens in our house. But that’s the rule and it’s understood. We’re always negotiating the computer time. I’m toying with the idea of letting down some of my restrictions. As long as my kids always understand – the computer games are a privilege, not a right. Privileges can be lost, but rights can’t.

Who knows what kind of generation we are raising? I hope it’s a generation of open-minded, generous, and quick-thinking people who just happen to have great hand-eye coordination.