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Adjusting Our Parenting Expectations

January 22, 2013 | by Emuna Braverman

Realistic expectations are the key to handling frustration.

When my kids were little, I couldn’t wait for them to go to bed at night. That didn’t come out quite right! Let me rephrase…When my children were younger, I enjoyed every minute of our busy days together. It was with great regret that I read them that last story, said the Shema, and shut the light.

But I had plans for the evening – nothing exciting, but plans nonetheless: stored-up projects and phone calls, expectations of some adult time with my friends or husband, a hope for a little quiet reading.

Frequently I would just be settling down to one of these activities when I would hear the telltale sound of little feet and a soft voice pleading, “I’m scared. Can you come lie with me?”

As long as I believed the night was “my time,” I was doomed to be annoyed and frustrated.

My first reaction was frustration. All my plans down the drain. But after a few nights like that, I realized the problem wasn’t the situation; it was my attitude and expectations.

As long as I believed the night was supposed to be “my time,” I was doomed to be annoyed and frustrated by every interruption. But once I accepted that the nights were, in fact, not my adult time, that my children still needed me then – and that if I put off projects until the evening, they weren’t going to get done – my frustration (mostly) vanished. It took me awhile to fully learn that lesson but once I did, I realized it could be applied to many situations.

The secret seems to be realistic (as opposed to low) expectations.

If I expect my very full and busy house, aided only by the occasional cleaning help, to look like my friend’s fairly empty home with a daily cleaning lady, I will be frustrated. In fact, I will be more than frustrated. I will spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning – only to discover that I am never fully caught up. I will probably raise my voice to unattractive decibels as I try to cajole my children into helping me attain these standards.

Bottom line: It won’t be very much fun around here.

Or I could recognize that the price of a bustling household may be a little more dust (okay, a lot more dust) and some books out of order.

I just needed to change my expectations.

Setting Priorities

Frequently, people come to me with tales of their childhood, or as they have re-imagined it. “We listened to everything our parents said. We would never think of disobeying.” “Our father’s word was law. We sat quietly through every meal and only spoke when spoken to. We never left the table without permission.”

The underlying message seems to be a popular theme, “What’s the matter with kids today?” – i.e. why aren’t my children behaving the way I did? (You mean the way you think you did!)

That song was written in 1963; this is clearly not a new problem. Nor do I think my friend’s memories are completely accurate. But it doesn’t really matter. Once again we are the victims of unrealistic expectations. Today’s children don’t sit quietly at the dinner table waiting to be spoken to – and do we really want them to? Authority has to be used sparingly. Respect has to be not just mandated but earned. If we expect complete adherence to our every desire, we will be frustrated and disappointed. Let’s aim for a healthy relationship with mutual caring and cooperation.

Our children’s priorities are not ours. They may be oblivious to the mess they leave, the loudness of their music, and the disruptiveness of their constant texting. They are certainly oblivious to the fact that parents have needs, too – outside of caring for them. (And once in a while we need to remind them of that fact!) We may need to discuss some of these behaviors with them – but only once we realize that they are normal. Only once we recognize the limits of our authority. Only once we adjust our expectations to the messy (in every respect) reality of life with children and stop focusing on some idealized vision.

We are raising real, complex and intricate people, not dressing up dolls and playing house. Our expectations need to match this reality – for everyone’s sake.

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