Wednesday, 15 July 2015

What can you expect of your children?

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Photography: stock up, lettering by www.lisamaltby.com

When you had a baby, what did you expect of him? That sounds a weird thing to ask, doesn't it? Like, what can you possibly expect from a helpless little bald thing that can't communicate? In the early days of parenting you learn that any expectations you had soon go out of the window; like that they will smile at four weeks, or they will sleep through the night at twelve (yeh, right) ... and then the rulebooks go out of the window because not one baby follows them all exactly, and you give up on any expectations whatsoever.

Aside from this being, initially, incredibly annoying, this can often be quite freeing too; it's not your fault if your baby isn't sleeping through the night yet; it's not your fault if your baby cries a lot (if they are fed and well-loved); it's not your fault if your baby isn't matching up with all the expectations you had of him. We throw the rulebooks out, and we start again. And we learn to see life through their eyes, to see the freedom, the rawness, the chaos, for what it really is. We stop expecting and we just love.

But the reality is that those rulebooks never really get thrown away; they are merely rubbed out, with blank pages left for you to refill. Before you know it, another line has been written in:

My three year old should be able to go to the toilet by himself by now
My four year old should be quiet when we go to the cinema
My ten year old shouldn't be so easily influenced by his friends
My teenager should study hard instead of socialising
My twenty year old should be investing in his career
My thirty year old should be in a stable relationship...

And the list goes on.

Now, don't get me wrong, standards are good; there needs to be a benchmark so that your kids know what is good and bad in life; to know which choices are wise and which are down right stupid. We can hope our children learn good things from us – learn to treat others with respect; learn to make a living and have good relationships – but expectations? Expectations tell you that should is better than freedom, that should is better than wisdom, that should is about your expectations, your reputation; you.

How will I look if my son chooses something alternative? How will I be perceived as a parent if my toddler is rude to a stranger on the bus because he doesn't know how to express himself yet? What if my children don't listen to my advice? Or invest time into the things that I like? What if my children don't call me when they're older? Will I simply miss them or begrudge them? Will I feel that they owe me for the years of sleepless nights, chocolate stained carpets and tantrums in Sainsburys? Will I feel that they ought to pop in at the same time each week because that's just what they should do? Will I expect them to move next door when I'm a little old lady because they should look after me?

My Facebook feed is full of quotes about expectations of offspring – quotes about how much mothers have sacrificed, how they endured labour for their children; how they should never be forgotten because of all they've done for their families; why they are owed gratitude. And there's nothing wrong with the sentiment of endorsing mothers (far from it!), but can true gratitude be prompted by a quote on social media? And who do you think shares these posts, children? Or pissed off mothers because their child forgot to get them flowers on Mothers' Day? Parenting is hard work but you do it out of choice and love, sometimes through gritted teeth and sometimes through beaming smiles, but not because your children will pay you back for it, right?

Here's the newsflash: your children owe you nothing. They didn't choose to be here; you put them here. Of course we hope our children call us when they've flown the nest, we hope they make good choices, but we cannot force a relationship any more than we can force sleep (as much as I long for both those things).

What this doesn't mean, of course, is that we let our children do whatever the hell they want when they are in our care, or, god forbid, treat us badly. We are people too, and part of modelling good relationships is to deal with confrontation well; to speak out when things aren't right; to tell our children that their behaviour isn't good, and when they are adults to confront them in the same way that we would any other friendship. But don't be surprised if they don't always do as you ask, or take on board your advice, as though they owe it to you to be obedient. If you always expect good behaviour I'm afraid you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, steer them in the right direction and lead by example, correcting them when they are in the wrong and saying sorry when you are (parents aren't always right, you know). Notice the things they're good at and help them to channel those things – not the things you wished they were be good at. Don't force the piano just because you regretted giving up on it too soon.

So put the the rulebook in the bin once and for all and forget about expectations – instead focus on hopes. You see, hopes bring freedom to both sides of a relationship: saying I hope my children have good relationships is about wanting the best for them and giving them freedom. Saying you expect them to do so instantly adds pressure and takes away all freedom, not only for your kids but for you too. Respect your children enough to give them a life that's filled with hope and freedom to be who they really are; not who you expect them to be.



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