By Lisa Shrewsberry
Happy Medium may as well be the name of a unicorn … with leprechaun as jockey, riding down the rainbow into Never, Ever Land. You can picture it, but have no proof such actually exists.
By their children you’ll know them — those yet to find Happy. A thousand-yard stare toward the intersection of 1st and Fame will confirm them, they who can, nay must, be good at everything.
Maybe we adults read too many volumes of The Boxcar Children or took Annie’s orphaned status as an indictment of absentee parenting. By contrast, being too present with a list of unreasonable expectations may also do irreparable harm to kids. Bad things can happen when we expect too much. They also occur, as studies attest, to children whose parents and teachers have low expectations of them. So how do we saddle-break Happy Medium, the pony kids really deserve?
Hamlet Smith, therapist /director of Life Strategies, Inc., has a few pointers about taming our expectations.
Children are hardwired, reveals Smith, to seek their parents’ approval. “This creates fabulous power to exercise in their lives. The real trick is to realize when our expectations are helping them or hurting them.”
The dangers of unrealistically high expectations? “(They) build resentment and failure into their little souls. We will send them on a never-ending journey to try and make us proud or we frustrate them so badly, they just give up.”
On the contrary, says Smith, having too low expectations creates another set of problems: “They end up on our couch playing video games at 35. No pressure, right?”
“The story is told of a father who, while trying to motivate his son, said: ‘When Abe Lincoln was your age, he walked to school.’ To which his son replied: ‘Yeah, and when he was your age, he was president.’ Avoid saying one thing and doing another with children — who have hawk’s eyes for inconsistency. “Saying one thing and doing another drives bitterness deep into your child’s soul. Model the behavior you want to see from your child.”
No Particular Extracurricular
Explore a variety of things to pique kid interest. “Children need guidance as to what they want to get involved in and how much to do it. There are many sports and musical options. Be ready to also consider things like martial arts, dance and theater.”
Resist the urge, explains Smith, to correct your failed sports career by living vicariously through your children, forcing them to attempt the triumphant movie version of your old, unsettled dreams. “(This comes) at the emotional expense of your child. You didn’t make the pros in sports; it’s OK if they don’t either. While it’s statistically possible for very few, maintaining the illusion long-term can be detrimental. Know when to say when.”
Be a Real Goalie
“Slow and steady wins the race,” as the Aesop story of the tortoise and the hare goes. “Help your child set reasonable and reachable short term goals,” says Smith, about sports, activities and grades.
“If they ran a mile in 8 minutes, coach them to try and get it down to 7 minutes 55 seconds next time.” D’s are unacceptable by most parental standards, but there are a couple of letters left between underachiever and perfectionist. Understanding your child’s abilities and gradually making each new goal tougher is a good rule of thumb.
Human Beings over Human Doings
“Stress enjoying life,” Smith explains. “If you find your child isn’t enjoying school, work or leisure activities at least on some level, then something is out of balance. Listen to their evaluation of their lives and ask them what they need. You might be surprised at what they can tell you about themselves.”
Less is More
“Coach children to take on less and do a better job with the small things rather than recklessly trying to accomplish everything anybody wants them to do.” A sharp saw, reminds Smith, cuts more wood faster than a dull one. “Encourage your child to become proficient in one thing at a time.”
“Knowing how to do one thing is very different than knowing how to live. In our day of moral relativism, it is even more important to teach kids right from wrong. Having a degree hanging on your wall when you’re older won’t stop everyone from thinking you’re a jerk,” maintains Smith.
Having a huge pile of toys won’t make kids any happier. Truly connecting, will. “You can only play with one thing at a time anyway,” Smith adds. Instead of heading to the mall, teach the value of spending time with friends. Organize a sleepover or a group project instead.
You Can’t Spell T-E-A-M with M and E
“Insist that your children learn to cooperate on group or team goals. At home, delegate responsibilities to be worked on together among siblings …like cleaning the living room or sharing responsibility to help with one another’s rooms. “Coach them to help another sibling when they are done with their assigned task,” Smith suggests. Families are the perfect canvas for illustrating group success. “Team sports can also reinforce this principle,” says Smith.
“There is hardly any more needed and neglected advice on the planet.” Smith feels strongly celebrating what you have and have done is as important as constructing new goals. “There will always be another mountain to climb. Teach children to be content with what they have.”
“Let children know verbally how proud you are when they are kind to a difficult child (for instance).” Create opportunities for children to be among diverse groups of people, including ones less fortunate. “Churches are often good places for families and kids to get involved with some kind of missionary work,” Smith offers.
It’s hard work producing little prodigies. Even the most well-rounded parents can become so distracted by performance that their kids miss out on the most important lessons in life, like how to respect others and be part of the big picture that lies beyond the looking glass. That’s the human experience. And it’s too valuable to be ignored.
“We are all a work in progress,” says Smith. “If you don’t get it right, try again. Don’t get distracted by the pain and negativity you see around you. It’s a fact of life. Focus on the many good-hearted, hard-working and skilled people in your community.”
For more information on Life Strategies, Inc., visit www.lifestrat.com
— E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org