This morning my 14-year-old daughter made a slightly inappropriate remark, and I laughed. Instead of enjoying my appreciation for her humor, she narrowed her eyes at me and said,”Last time I said that, you yelled at me.” It made me sad to realize that she had expected me to yell at her.
Don’t get me wrong. The levels of teenage sass that sometimes emerge from her mouth are not pleasing. But the larger issue is that we have developed a dynamic in which I expect her to be nasty, and she expects to be chastised for her comments. This dynamic is very common in families, in which parents and various children develop roles in their interactions with each other.
Some expectations can be good. Studies have shown that when teachers are told a group of students is extremely intelligent, their high expectations of the students lead to higher achievement than in classes where students are perceived as limited learners. The same is true for parents. If we expect hard work, good manners, and appropriate speech from our children, they are more likely to rise to our expectations.
Yet expectations can set up cycles of dysfunction in a family. The family “black sheep,” for example, regularly gets into trouble because s/he is expected to be a screwup. Once the pattern is established, it can be hard to break.
It’s true that I have different expectations of my four children. I assume one of them will usually be responsible while another will usually be irresponsible. I assume that one’s snide comments are meant in good fun while another’s are meant to inflict damage. I must even confess to a bit of a sexist attitude wherein I find off-color and potty humor, as well as swearing, much more offensive coming from one of my girls than from my boys.
I guess that recognizing my bias is the first step toward changing my expectations for each of my children. So while I remain committed to high expectations for their behavior at home and in school, I need to practice another virtue in order to maintain a close, loving relationship with each child: acceptance.