By Jen Salle-Webb
“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” – William Shakespeare
As a self-professed perfectionist I have always had high expectations. It is a personality trait that can be both positive and negative. If you want something done well you can rely on me but I often grill myself throughout the process of achieving perfection in what I set out to accomplish. I’m a lot more relaxed now, but in the past I would get an idea in my head of how things should be or how I thought they should be and that became all I could see.
Expectation takes on many forms, from what we expect of ourselves, to what we expect of others and what they expect of us. We can have high expectations, low expectations, large expectations, small expectations, realistic expectations and unrealistic expectations, which arise either every now and then or a hundred times a day.
When we expect, we live in anticipation. We are wanting something to happen, we are waiting for something to happen. We are looking forward to it or striving towards it. We are looking to the future rather than living in the present.
It is our preconceived ideas of how things should be.
Our expectations of children
From the moment a child is born we immediately begin to place expectations on them. We have expectations for their birth, sleep, feeding, and toileting. Expectations for age, gender, emotions, behaviour, growth, development, learning and more…
We are told what we should expect and when. The number one bestselling book to purchase during pregnancy is “What to EXPECT when you’re expecting” (which was actually quite helpful).
When my son was born I was told to “expect” that he would feed every two hours for about 20 minutes. That he would sleep often and should have some awake time for one-two hours between naps. During the night if he slept for more than three hours I had to wake him for a feed and ideally he should have between six-eight wet nappies within 24 hours.
I was told to “expect” that he would need solids by six months, be walking at around one, talking by two, sleeping through the night by three, toilet trained by four and writing by five.
Just thinking about all these expectations is exhausting. They put so much pressure on us and our children. Essentially, they take us away from our children’s natural rhythm and direct us towards the clock or calendar.
We love our children and want the best for them, but the thought of our children not meeting these expectations causes us to worry and has us pushing them into things before they are ready. We have come to believe that it is our job to help, assist and prepare them; to sit up, to strengthen their muscles, to walk, to use the toilet, and to eat.
We have come to believe that it is our responsibility to ensure these expectations are met within a certain timeframe. It is our job to ensure that they learn to share, to listen, to follow instructions, to use their manners, to pick up after themselves, to be kind to others, to eat well, and to be respectful. We have come to believe that it is our job to mold them into these perfect little adults. But is it? Is it our job to shape them into who WE think they should be?
I used to think so, but now I realise that we don’t actually need to “teach” our children these things. We don’t need to push them to learn. Learning comes naturally to a child. If we stand back, provide opportunities, role model and LOVE them, they will learn in their own time, when they are developmentally ready.
“Allow your children their childhood without trying to pull them faster than nature allows.” – Osho
As a child gets older we expect more from them. We have a few big expectations that we are aware of but also many smaller expectations which we may not even notice. Most of us don’t even realise we have these expectations until something happens which causes us to become severely disappointed or frustrated.
A perfect example of this happened just the other day.
We had been rushing around all morning to get the house ready for visitors who were coming to stay. I was trying to juggle a handful of jobs, all at the same time. I remember feeling that I needed to slow down, but I also felt like I couldn’t. I had asked my son to do something a million times and eventually, when he still hadn’t done it, I got angry. In the midst of my own chaos I yelled, “Why aren’t you listening to me? I need [expect] you to listen to me when I speak to you.” My strong willed, confident young man immediately whipped around and responded with, “MUM, I can’t listen to you right now, I have to listen to my body!” Stunned, I had no reply. I said “OK” and walked away.
I realised in that moment that my own expectation was interfering with what he was doing, and that what he was doing in that moment was far more important than what I wanted him to do. When I realised, I felt guilty but I also felt incredibly proud. Proud that he listened to himself, stood up to me and expressed himself so clearly. His response pulled me back. I realised what had happened and sat down with a cup of tea.
As I thought, I realised that not once had I stopped and connected with him. I didn’t even know what it was that he was doing. I was in so much of a rush that I was just throwing commands at him in passing, expecting him to listen to me and expecting him to do as he had been asked. After all, he is nearly five, and five-year-olds should be able to do that right?
Wrong! To be honest, if he was an adult who was deeply involved in a project, I doubt he would have dropped everything in an instant. If it were me, I probably would have waited until I had finished what I was doing before stopping to help. I don’t think I would ever expect that of any adult, yet for some reason I expected it of my child.
Where do these expectations come from?
As we grow up we tend to take on the expectations of those around us, until we rewrite them ourselves.
Our expectations are formed through our own upbringing, inherited values, cultural beliefs, and pressures from society. We develop attitudes and assumptions about children and the role of adults through our experiences which become ingrained in us and shape our view of how children should think, learn, develop and behave.
We often justify our expectations with a belief that we need them. But if you stop and think about it, how do you feel when others expect things of you?When your partner, child, co-workers or employer expects you to do something? When someone feels expected to do something they no longer have the freedom to choose, it removes free will. They no longer do something because it comes naturally or because they want to, they do it because they feel they have to.
“Peace begins when expectation ends” – Sri chinmoy
All children (and adults) respond better when we work together in partnership. When we do things for love and self-satisfaction, rather than because we are expected to.
We can’t just erase the expectations that have become part of us but we can be more mindful of them. We can do this by becoming aware and asking ourselves, “Are these expectations reasonable?” and “Are these expectations necessary?”
How do expectations affect children?
When we meet or exceed expectations we get a temporary sense of fulfillment. In terms of academic outcomes, having high expectations has shown to be beneficial and positively impacts on a students performance, but expectations can also be detrimental.
A few studies have concluded that having high expectations of our children is a good thing and will make them more successful, but successful in the eyes of whom? What is the definition of success? Employment opportunities, leadership, and profit? What about happiness, life satisfaction, mental health and self-esteem?
One finding found that “What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” In the case of children, they live up to their parents’ expectations. They live up to what someone else wants them to be rather than what they want to be themselves.
When we don’t meet these real or perceived expectations, we don’t feel like what we have done is good enough. We don’t feel good enough. When expectations are consistently higher than we are able to achieve, we experience self-doubt, a lack of confidence and symptoms of anxiety. It can create a “weakness” or deficit mindset and contribute to patterns of negative self-talk.
How do expectations affect us as adults?
Expectation is an unhealthy attachment to outcomes we try to control. It feeds frustration and causes us to worry.
When our expectations aren’t met, it often leads us to say unkind words, act unreasonably, or make poor decisions. We become disillusioned and suffer as a result.
I had many expectations of my children, more so behavioural than developmentally. I expected they would get dressed when asked, I expected that they would sit nicely to eat, I expected that they would listen when being spoken to and be respectful; but all these expectations led to my own frustration.
Now as much as possible I try not to expect anything. I believe my children are doing the best they can in each moment. Sometimes you don’t want to get dressed or tidy up by yourself, sometimes you have an urge to sing at the table and eat with your hands, and sometimes there is stuff going on internally that gets in the way of what you need to do. When I let go of my expectations I found that I let go of my need to push and rush to do what everyone else was doing.
When we base our expectations only on what we see within our knowing, we blind ourselves from all other possibilities. It distorts our perception and directs us away from our heart. We don’t appreciate our children for who they are, because all we see is who we want them to be. It prevents us from admiring the beauty of what is unfolding before us, because we are so focused on our own limited view of what is possible.
“We must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectations.” – Ivan Illich
When we are hopeful we don’t attach ourselves to the outcome, we have an intention but we trust that things will happen as they are meant to.