When our children don’t live up to our expectations

IT is challenging for parents when our children don’t live up to our expectations and it’s an issue we can face at any stage of our parenthood journey. When our kids don’t walk by 12 months, or talk by 18 months, or toilet train by two years, or achieve academically at school the way we thought they would, or hoped they would. All of these milestones can be stressful for parents who see their kids’ achievements as a reflection of their validity as a parent. I confess, I’m one of those. That is one of the reasons it was so hard to let my children give up piano lessons. But when our kids don’t perform as we expect, what can and what should we do?

Last week a friend of mine revealed her middle child (in Year 1) is not excelling academically the way her firstborn (Year 4)  has done.  Before you rush to judgment, muttering, “Parents should never compare their children. Just let their kids be themselves” take a step back. It’s easy to say those wise words while you’re reading a parenting blog. But it’s much harder to remember that when you’re just finding out that your second child is not at the top of the class the way your first child has always been.

I have three kids and two are high performers in the classroom while the third is a solid average in the classroom. It has taken me a long time to make my peace with the fact that my child is a solid C student while I have two kids who, with much less effort, achieve much higher results. For a few years I’ve thought to myself that if I put enough work into my C student I could get them to a B – as if by sheer force of my will I could turn his brain into a different thing. Or if I yelled enough at the three of them, I could create piano players of them all.

But gradually, what you start to figure out, after a lot of trying and failing, is that you can’t wish things to be different.  So, lately, I’ve come to a few realisations that have given me an enormous level of peace and happiness, and in doing so, I’ve been able to pass on that peace and happiness to my children. And I think if I remember these things, even if later in life, my kids don’t follow the path I hope for them, well, I think our relationship will survive. I call this resilient parenting.

Revelation 1 – My children are not me

As a student, the most common comment on my report cards was: “Felicity could achieve better results if she would just apply herself”. Those comments did not change my behaviour or inspire me to apply myself at school. But when I became a parent it was as if the ghosts of teachers past all showed up in my head and beat out a constant refrain: “Don’t be a failure as a mother. Apply yourself”. And so I would do all kinds of things in the name of being a good mother, such as play classical music to my infant children in the hope that the Mozart effect was real and would create little geniuses (it’s not real, has been disproven repeatedly and it didn’t create little geniuses, or even kids who love playing classical music, as my previous piano blog post proves).

As a mother, I have learned to separate my hopes and dreams from what they want and what I really want for them. For example, while I want them to be piano players, what I *really* want is for them to love music (and be happy). Our path of me forcing them into daily practice wasn’t engendering a love of piano, so I’ve had to admit that I had tried, and failed, to create musicians. I will continue to learn the piano, and so will fulfill my dream, which is as it should be.

Revelation 2 – My children don’t feel like failures

For the most part, as far as I can tell, my three children are happy and well-adjusted. By focusing on their failures, I risk making them less happy, less well-adjusted. By trying to make them something they’re not, (such as competent piano players), I will probably make them feel like though they are failing me. And that is definitely not what I want my children to feel. That feeling of failure is heavy and hard to cope with and the last thing I want to do is create that feeling in my kids. So, no more piano lessons!

Revelation 3 – Happiness is more important than As and Bs

If someone put a gun to my head and said to me: “Choose what you want for your children – all As on the report card, or happiness” well, of course, I would choose happiness. While it sounds a little oversimplistic to think of it like that, if you pause for a moment and actually think about what that means, you will realise there are practical applications to how you react to your children’s so-called “failures”. If they are happy, then not getting As on the report card suddenly doesn’t seem so big a deal. If they are not happy, then helping them find peace is definitely more important than worrying about the As on their report card.

These parenting realisations have come to me gradually, and probably other parents are quicker off the mark than me. But I really like not *worrying* so much about my C student and not fretting about the future. My child is a happy, resilient kid who makes brilliant choices in friends, which says a lot about the type of kid he is and how he feels about himself. For me, as his mother, I’m so proud of him for his work ethic to his schoolwork and his attitude to life, that the Cs don’t bother me like they used to. It’s a great parenting space to be in and I hope I remember this and manage to stay here for a long time!

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