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.

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