Expectations and the inconvenient truth of parenting

One of the chapters in my book 9 Things: A back to basics guide to calm, common-sense, connected parenting for those who have children aged birth to 8 explores “Expectations, Beliefs and Mindsets” and here is a small taste of the introduction to that chapter.

Expectations are really interesting things when you think about them. Quite often we don’t even know that we consciously have expectations and yet we behave in accordance with them all the time.

One of the biggest changes that happened in the parenting landscape around 20 years ago was the arrival of parenting magazines and now parenting blogs. I noticed one day when I was in a newsagent how many of these new publications were coming out. I’m quite sure there weren’t any when I was parenting when my boys were young.

Then I spent some time looking at the cover images and it struck me that these wonderful, well-intentioned magazines were probably setting most mummies up to fail. I noticed that all the supposedly ‘new mums’ on the front cover were very slim and, amazingly, appeared to have had a full day in the day spa to look so polished! Not only that, the babies they were holding were oh so perfect. If we have a baby and we are meeting the needs of that baby up to 3 months of age we probably will not look like these Miranda Kerr look-a-likes.

There is a good chance we will almost have a mono brow because we haven’t had time to pluck or wax. There will be dark rings under our eyes and probably still a reasonably generous floppy tummy. Our hair will probably need some colour and certainly a trim. And I’m sure our outfit would have some baby’s spew somewhere on the front of it. No wonder so many mums feel like failures. Now if we had seen the occasional picture like that on the front of parenting magazines, maybe our expectations of what was coming would be more realistic. A tiny percentage of women have that elastic ability to bounce back into pre-birth shape quickly but for most it really does take time.

A good dose of realism

Then there are the expectations we hold about our forthcoming baby. Maybe it has shifted a little with the massive advances in medical science, but it seems that many soon-to-be parents have the expectation that the end result of a perfectly healthy baby is a given, a definite. Baby showers where baby names are celebrated almost like in a baby naming ceremony is one such phenomenon. There are no absolutes in bringing babies into our world and having high, yet realistic, expectations is the best way to look forward to that important moment.

So often our expectations of normal vaginal deliveries, breastfeeding, healthy babies, full-term pregnancies and sleeping tiny babies can be shattered. As the parenting competition has accelerated in our modern world, maybe expectations have also been extended even higher than they were before. It can so upsetting for a mum to be unable to meet the expectation of what she held highly before birth or early mothering. Again high – yet with a good dose of realism – expectation can make the disappointments easier to bear.

I wonder if the sense of certainty we have when we become pregnant may have contributed to changes in expectations. A recent ABC TV series, which is based on the true experiences of a midwife in the early part of the 20th Century, showed just how fragile the gift of a human life was. Most babies were delivered in homes where poverty was an unwelcome visitor. The doctor only attended when there was an emergency. With the amazing and stunning advances in medicine and science, babies that way under 500g and are born before 24 weeks gestation may not only survive, they can grow up to be very healthy human beings. Maybe this is giving us the false sense of surety that exists in our world today.

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The same goes for young children’s behaviour to a point. We often set the bar way too high given that babies, toddlers and children are a work in progress.

90% of childhood misbehaviour is the result of the developmental journey.  – Dr Gordon Neufeld

An inconvenient truth

Our little ones are learning all the time to work out the right ways to meet our expectations and with underdeveloped brains, poor impulse control and an innocent seeking system that yearns to experience life as it comes – so much of their behaviour is unintentionally inconvenient. If we see their process of growth through this lens rather than one that says ‘my way or the highway’, maybe our children will be able to work out the right ways of being without feeling shamed or unloved!

Essentially this means that children’s behaviour when it does not meet our expectations is not so much wrong or bad it is mainly about children being children, with a child’s mind and depth of experience. If a child’s behaviour is inconvenient to us as an adult, it too is not bad or wrong it is merely a normal part of the developmental journey of a child growing to be an adult. Next time if you’re frustrated and angry about your child’s behaviour, pause, take a deep breath and see if you can view that behaviour through the eyes of a child.

When they smear their food all over the wall this does not have to be seen as bad or wrong, merely as a child using their senses to find meaning in their world. When they use your best lipstick to draw you a beautiful picture on the wall again they are not wrong or bad. Indeed there was a study that came out late last year that suggested that children who played with their food in the high chair tended to become smarter!

This is not to say we don’t guide our children towards behaviour that might reasonably be expected of them. It’s fine to get their help in cleaning the food or lipstick off the walls and then showing them where you’d like them to draw. It’s just about knowing why they might have done that.

So maybe give some thought to the expectations you hold for yourself and your children and make sure you are not setting either up to fail. Once kids realise that a parent holds the bar too high for them to reach, often they give up or they rebel.