Early on in motherhood, I had this sneaking suspicion my son was actually much more capable than I was told he was. I also really didn’t want to raise a child who thought he wasn’t capable, so I figured the best way around that was to just treat him as if he were. This attitude towards parenting is entirely different than overt and excessive praise, extreme statements such as “you’re the best at eating baby cereal!” and engaging my child in a host of extracurricular activities so he can develop his ‘full potential.’
An attitude of capability is instead one that says “ I believe you can, even if you don’t and can’t yet, and I’ll keep believing that you can until you prove otherwise.” It’s an attitude that starts from a position of ‘yes’ or an excited/hopeful ‘maybe!’ rather than a position of scared/uncomfortable ‘maybe’ or ‘no’.
I’m not the ‘vivid memory’ type, but I distinctly remember a moment where I chose to engage with a ‘yes’ attitude: I was standing in line at a WellsFargo in Pasadena, CA when my son was about 14 months old. I had a piece of trash in my hand, and the garbage can was on the other side of the large room; I handed the piece of trash to my son and said, in a tone of voice as if I were talking to an adult, “can you please go throw this away? The garbage can is across the room, to the left of the coffee stand. It’s black and has a hole in the top.” He took the trash and began toddling away.
A woman looked at me, eyebrows raised, and said in a fairly condescending tone, “don’t you think that’s a bit much?” Now, in my retrospective version of this scene, I say “I just want to say thank you so much for using your ‘no’ attitude with me and my parenting. I feel super supported in young motherhood right now. Not that I need your support, I mean, I totally know what I’m doing. This little fellow came out with a manual.” But I didn’t say any of that. I watched my son toddle confidently away from me, and simply said, “Maybe. We’ll see.”
My vivid memory stops there. I like to think he made it to the garbage can without any assistance, but the point is, it didn’t actually matter. What mattered is I believed maybe he could and he trusted my belief. I gave him a chance to try, and whatever happened next I do know I told him thank you, and that he did such a good job. "Thank you for trying, thank you for helping me, thank you for being brave and walking across this great big room full of strangers, thank you for exploring, and for trusting me when I said “try.”"
Having higher expectations of our children does not mean asking them to do things children shouldn’t be expected to do like mediate parental conflict, walk themselves to the bus before they are ready, grasp the painful realities of conflict and injustice that permeate our world, or whatever else they clearly aren’t ready to do. Having higher expectation means we let our children show us what they are ready to do before we jump to ‘no’. Higher expectation means we don’t draw the limit of their capabilities without asking for their participation in the process. Higher expectation means choosing to absorb some of the fall-out so they can miss the mark and recognize they have room to grow.
If our children are raised with a ‘no’ mentality ascribed to them, they will have a ‘no’ mindset towards themselves. Even more seriously, if they are raised in an environment where missing the mark is considered a failure, they will be afraid to try, and will assume there is one right way to do something. When there is only one right way to do something, our children stop being curious.
As a gentle aside, I would suggest many of us as adults have concluded there is one right way to do many things, and are subsequently void of curiosity. And I would also suggest an absence of curiosity quickly morphs into fear – and unfortunately, the fear is what our children pick up on most quickly, and embrace as their own, even though it feels such a stranger in their ready-to-explore-and-risk little beings. An absorbed ‘no’ mindset results in these self-conclusions: I am not good enough, the risk is bigger than my potential to recover from or overcome it, someone has the right answer and it’s not me, and so I am so afraid.
Our children will fail, they’ll fail big. How do I know? Well, mine already have, and even more so – I have. I’ve failed huge, fails that take years to begin healing into change and growth. My intent in writing this chapter is not to suggest failures are only opportunities. While I believe just about anything can be redeemed, I also know that sometimes failure just looks like, smells like, tastes like, and feels like failure. Full stop.
But, our children don’t need help recognizing their failures. The world, starting at a very, very young age, has already started labeling their missing the mark as ‘failures full stop.’ You know this is true, because the world has done it to you and me, too (and if we’re honest, sometimes we’re ‘the world’ in this scenario).
But from us, from their parents, our children don’t need help recognizing failure; they need opportunities to try and not succeed. And not succeeding must not be defined as failure, but instead embraced as learning and applauded as courageous curiosity. They need to fall, literally and figuratively. They need to fight, to hurt others (hopefully not too literally) and to be hurt. They need to pour their own milk and cover the floor with it (you can make that as analogous as you want).
And then, absolutely then, they need to be scooped up, told they did well not in spite of missing the mark, but because they tried. They must be taught how to look back and see where micro-goals were met, even when the macro-goals remained elusive. When my babies were little, up until they were about 4, many of our post-injury or post-conflict hugs ended with me setting them on their feet, and with arms still supporting their weight, whispering in their ear, “strong feet, brave heart.”
We have to engage in the world with strong feet and brave heart – to be steady, and know who we are, to have enough confidence in what we know to be true of ourselves that when we fall we know our brave heart will remind our feet just how strong they are. And when our brave hearts quake at the prospects looming ahead, our strong feet will, out of sheer habit, begin walking just in the direction we need to go.
This mindset doesn’t begin in adolescence, or even grade school – it begins in infancy and takes root in toddler years, and I promise it begins to bloom right before your very eyes by the time they are 2.5-3. It’s subtle, like an early spring bloom still hidden by wet leaves from the past fall, but it begins to happen.
Now that my kids are a bit older, we’ve begun to shift a bit towards the next step in this lesson: defining success and accepting our short-comings with intentionality. My son came home from KG the other day and announced, “sometimes kids say mean things to me.” The conversation continued like this:
Me: “yeah? That stinks. What do they say?”
Kai: “they said my drawing was bad.”
Me: “Huh…what did you think of your drawing?”
Kai: “It was bad.”
Kai: “It was bad.”
Me: “Oh. Does it bother you it was bad?” (note – I opted out of the conversation on who defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’, especially when it comes to kg art)
Kai: “No. Not really. I don’t like drawing.”
Me: “Ok. Well, it makes sense to me that if you don’t like drawing, you probably didn’t spent much time on it, right?”
Me: “if you didn’t spend much time on it, do you think it should be good?”
Me: “well, maybe it’s ok to not have a good drawing. In fact, maybe it’s ok to do a bad drawing, especially if you don’t like drawing. Are there other things you like doing and are good at?”
Kai: “yeah, I’m really good in PE. I usually win the games”
Me: “that’s awesome. Maybe next time the kids say your drawing is bad, you could just shrug and let them know you know, and that it’s ok with you because it’s not something you want to spend a lot of time on. And maybe someday you will want to spend a lot of time on it, but for today, it’s ok to not be good at drawing. I’m not good at physics, or at high jump – I don’t like those things, and so I don’t spend much time on them.”
Kai: “yeah, ok. That’s fine.”
And so we push towards this lesson more and more – you take part in deciding which goals you want to pursue, that you should set high expectations for yourself, and it will take hard work to meet them.
Step one of the lesson: I am worth a ‘yes’.
Step two: Missing the mark means I tried, and that’s so good.
Step three: I get to choose what the goal is, and I choose how hard I work to get there.
Step four: Step two is super important.
I’m not entirely sure what the next steps will be, but I’m pretty sure they have something to do with recognizing some expectations are determined by others and somewhat non-negotiable. For example: you simply should not get in a car with someone you don’t know. This is non-negotiable. You simply should not steal, or kill people, or say things that undermine the value of another human being. These are non-negotiable. But, at the same time, you get to choose if you make these expectations your own, or if you simply choose to follow the expectations out of fear, or ignore the expectations and endure the consequences of not meeting these expectations.
At this stage in the game, as my kids venture into the broader world and I’m no longer with them, I hope they have learned how to be curious with expectations – to weigh them for their intrinsic and extrinsic value, and intentionally align themselves with expectations of value while discarding all the rest. I surely won’t be able to teach them what their relationship should be to each and every expectation that comes their way from society, others, or even themselves. I’m still figuring out to do with the ones that come my way every day. But I can teach them their engagement with expectation is in fact a relationship, and they have a voice in it.
And I hope, when they come up against these expectations everyday, whether it’s an expectation to look a certain way, or say a certain unkind thing, or look the other way when injustice occurs, or to give up trying out for basketball because someone said they aren’t any good, or to pursue a certain career or life-style that puts a damper on their spirit, I hope deep in their beings, a little voice rises up, reminding them to have higher expectations but less failing as it assuredly whispers, “strong feet, brave heart.”