Unnecessary Expectations: A Lesson in How Not To Worry

by Lisa Rivero

unnecessary expectations

Toilet training. Reading. Bicycle riding. Manners. Patience. Penmanship. Multiplication tables. Spelling. Fitting in. Being oneself. Following rules. Standing up for oneself. Computer time. Driving. Physical fitness. Dating. College preparation. Healthy eating habits. College applications. Living in a dorm.

If the above list makes your stomach knot, you must be a parent. We parents worry about whether our children are learning enough, doing things on time, gaining needed skills, and generally prepared for whatever life throws at them. We are trained to worry from the very beginning, when our baby’s height and weight are charted according to percentiles, when we watch for and record the month and day when our child first rolls over or smiles or crawls. We worry about various kinds of readiness: kindergarten readiness, reading readiness, sleepover readiness, college readiness.

Parents of gifted children also worry about other things: uneven development, levels of challenge, acceleration, finding friends, underachievement, perfectionism. Even if our children are “on time” with skills, we worry they should be doing them sooner because they are, after all, gifted. And if they are ahead of schedule, we worry that we are pushing them or they aren’t adequately challenged or something else must be in need of fixing.

Our answer to all this worry is often to try to cram as much wisdom, skill, and experience into our children as possible in the years they are in our care. We are always thinking ahead, planning for what our children will need for the next step, helping them to improve.

I’d like to ask if many of the expectations we have for our children are not so much unrealistic as unnecessary. With the best of intentions, could we be denying our children a sense of having an influence over their own lives and, in the meantime, losing sight of the joy of the moment as we look always to the future?

Old Dogs and Timely Tricks

We naturally want to protect our children from pain. We remember life lessons that we learned the hard way, and we want to give our children the gift of our experience and wisdom. We read about the potential social and emotional minefields our children may fall victim to, and we understandably feel that being a good parent means that we do the work of finding and removing those minefields, or at least direct our children down a different path, away from danger.

Life, however, often throws us surprises. This year, at age 45, I am—for the first time in my life—experiencing the joy of being organized. I confess that mine is not a Martha Stewart kind of organization. Nor will I ever have an orderly life like that of the people I know who are natural filers rather than pilers. However, I am learning, finally, to break big tasks and goals into small steps, to congratulate myself for whatever steps I do take, to make lists, to meet deadlines and to take some control of my time.

This is in stark contrast to my previous habits. My mother, highly creative and artistic, did not have strong organization skills while I was young (although she did develop them, as I did, in her forties). I remember wishing I had the kind of mother who made chore charts and schedules and whose house was spotless and clothes neatly pressed. I thought that if she were more organized, I would be, too.

It didn’t help that I didn’t need skills of time management or organization to do well in school. The expectations of the teachers were low, and I didn’t push myself to go beyond them. In college I hit a wall of sorts—receiving grades lower, much lower, than A’s for the first time. I somehow learned to cram more effectively and even once in awhile to write more than one draft of a paper. However, I can’t say I ever developed habits of organization or good study skills. I am definitely a “P” (perception) on the Myers Brigg personality scale, and I have a high tolerance for disorder. It’s not all bad. My openness and acceptance of the messier parts of life are part of what has made unschooling (child-directed learning) work so well for our family. At the same time, though, I was continually frustrated with never meeting personal goals and feeling my life was slipping away from me. I also was beginning to see just how much I dislike the feeling of being overwhelmed.

What changed?

Our son is preparing to go to college in the fall, and I have been thinking a lot about making the transition from a homeschooling parent to an empty nester. I love my work—freelancing (both writing and indexing), researching, teaching. The light bulb moment for me was when I realized that I love my work even more and do it better when I am on top of things. Duh! Being disorganized and not taking control of my time make me less, not more creative. Also, adding some aspects of organization and self-discipline to my life does not take away from my ability to go with the flow or my ability to become immersed in the moment.

You might be thinking that it would have been better for my mother to have taught me these lessons earlier, that my learning them on my own points to wasted years and potential. I thought that, too, for a long time.

The reality, however, is that my mother was exactly the kind of mother I needed. She passed away far too young at age 56 from multiple myeloma, but in the last fifteen years of her life, she found herself and her passions and reinvented herself. She grew her own quilting business, saving money a little at time until she could buy her own long-arm quilting machine. She published a newsletter devoted to long-arm quilting. She designed and sold patchwork patterns and quilting stitches, and she did mail-order work for people all across the country, including Alaska. Somehow, from this work and the need it fulfilled in her grew the skills she needed to be a business woman and working artist. She hired a weekly cleaning woman, told my dad he could get his own lunch once in awhile, and got her life and time in order. She took control.

Who am I kidding? Had she been the mother I thought I needed, using charts and schedules and lists to try to make me organized, I would have rebelled (I was that kind of child). I needed—demanded—my mental and physical space. My mother, with her intuition and her own tolerance for letting others go their own way, met this need, and for that I am forever grateful.

Now I am learning these new skills for me, for how I want to feel and live, and just when I need them most. In Liberating Everyday Genius (later retitled The Gifted Adult), Mary-Elaine Jacobsen shares this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt:

Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are and then make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.

Ought to Worry? Or Worrying for Nought?

Now that our son is seventeen, I sometimes think back to the worries I had while he was growing up. Some of them were academic in nature: learning multiplication tables, writing in cursive, fitting in lab science as a homeschooler. Others had to do with social-emotional needs: balancing alone time with social time, finding good friends, self-confidence.

Most of my worries were a waste of time. He learned multiplication simultaneously when he learned algebra. He never did learn cursive, except for his signature, and probably will never need it. I teach college students, and I know from experience that a small fraction of them write anything in cursive (and if he does need it, he can pick it up fast). He skipped high school lab science altogether, and waited to take a college chemistry class as a dual enrollment student.

In terms of finding a good balance of alone time and social time, this need will change when he goes to college in the fall. I trust that he’ll figure it out when the time comes and be able to ask for help and advice. Through a theater program and our homeschooling group, he has a group of very close friends, both boys and girls—better friends than I ever had at his age. When he was seven or even ten, I could not have foreseen this gift in his life. His self-confidence and self-knowledge continue to grow, and I frequently remind myself that as much as I’d like to, I can’t see the world through his eyes. His perspective is his own.

Of course, the answer is not to throw up our hands in either despair or apathy. A little worry keeps us on our toes and helps us to re-evaluate and change course. However, if we have gotten in the habit of worrying abouteverything equally rather than saving worry for the really big problems, we might need to learn how not to worry, at least so much, and to practice not worrying, at least for today.

Perhaps the real lesson is not so much about our parenting as about ourselves. If Eleanor Roosevelt was right, then how we change and grow as adults right in front of our children, where they can see us, is more effective in the long run than cajoling and nagging and bribing and, yes, worrying. I have watched with interest how my son, on his own, has become much more organized recently: using his white board to make lists, giving himself points for getting tasks done during the day, and asking for reminders when he needs them without accusing us of nagging him (parents of teenagers know what a breakthrough this is!). I don’t think it is a mere coincidence that this change in him has happened only after I began to change myself.

The goal of life-long learning, growth, and self-actualization—rather than the faster-is-always-better and continual early success approach to parenting—removes many of the artificial timetables we impose on ourselves and our children. Our children ultimately will make mistakes, learn from them, and be in control of their lives. They (and we) will never run out of things to learn about our world and ourselves.

The next time you find yourself worrying excessively about an expectation your child is not meeting, ask yourself this: What if that expectation were not met until later? How might things still work out? What if your child needs to learn this skill on her own? What if you decide not to worry about it just for today, and to enjoy the sunshine (or rain or snow)?

Better yet, what do you want to learn today? What do you want to become?


Lisa Rivero is the author of Creative Home Schooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families and The Homeschooling Option, as well as several articles in national gifted education journals. She is currently working on a book about homeschooling for middle school and high school. She lives with her husband and son in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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