Tuesday, January 26, 2010

day twenty-seven: have high expectations for things that are in your child’s control—and no expectations for those things that are not

"There was a time when we expected nothing of our children but obedience, as opposed to the present, when we expect everything of them but obedience."
                             Anatole Broyard

The evening wore on with Kayla, our seemingly-near-genius eleven year old dyslexic and dysgraphic, still sitting at the dining room table, her eyes puffy from crying, and Mom and Dad hovering nearby demanding that she “just write that paragraph.” Kayla was smart; there was no reason why she couldn’t pen a simple paragraph. She read widely, at least a chapter book a week, though usually much more than that, and she knew more information than any eleven year old I had ever met. And yet writing a puny little paragraph appeared to be out of her reach. However, we, her parents, persevered—she would do this because we told her to. She was too smart not to be able to do what we demanded of her.

Not our best parenting moment—and thankfully, we learned from Kayla about expecting things out of our kids that they simply are not able to produce. Kayla became a modern-day success story—once we learned to focus on her strengths and downplay her weaknesses. Within four years of that evening, she was co-writing curriculum for fourth graders with me (with a computer to type on and spell check to correct her spelling). Within five years of that evening, she wrote a children’s chapter book, a biographical compilation about missionaries. Within seven years of that evening, she received perfect ACT verbal scores---not once, but twice (not bad for a child who learned to read at age nine and write at age twelve!).

It took us a while, but through Kayla’s dysgraphia and dyslexia—and through a strong-willed little son who tried to convince us that he could not learn to obey(!)—we discovered a crucial parenting truth: have high expectations of the things that are in your child’s control and no expectations for the things that are not in his or her control.

We parents have a tendency to do as the quote above infers: we have grandiose ideas about what our kids should be able to do, and these things are often not in their control, while we overlook the simple things, like obedience and respect, which are fully in their control.

We learned that it was unfair, and unwise, to expect our children to do things before they were ready to do them. These things, like pottying, learning to read, writing, spelling, penning, and other “normal” activities, are all based on readiness. Yelling, begging, cajoling, and punishing will not make them happen any sooner than they will likely happen for that child without those “motivators.” It is far better to wait for readiness for these things and keep the diaper on, continue reading aloud to the child, and proceed with letting the son or daughter dictate what he or she wants to write—until he or she is truly ready to do those things.

We also learned that it is unfair, and unwise, to not expect our children to do things that do not require readiness. These things, like obeying the first time, being kind to others, showing respect to adults, are all based on training. If a child is nearing two years old, he can be trained to come when he is called, to not harm another person, and to not scream or tell his authorities “no.” There is no “readiness age” for starting to develop good character.

Expect great things from your kids—for those areas that are in their control. Have great patience with your kids—for those areas that are not.

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