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Parents' View

Children: When Expectations Don't Meet Reality

By Elaine Heffner, CSW, Ed.D.

Mom in bed with a baby
Photo © Corbis

When you were pregnant what did you imagine your child would be like? Were you thinking boy? Girl? Would he look like his father? Would she have your blond hair? She is kicking a lot, so does this mean she'll be an athlete? An important part of pregnancy is the connection you make with your imagined baby.

When the long-awaited day comes and the real baby arrives, the imagined baby doesn't vanish altogether. An early challenge of new motherhood is dealing with the disparity between the imagined and the real baby. And this is a challenge that will be revisited at various stages of a child's development. Sometimes, without realizing it, we compare the child we have to the child we imagined we would have, and that imagined child is keeping us from knowing our real child.

One reality is undeniable: you have a son or a daughter. Yet, even such undeniable reality can be a stumbling block if a mother always pictured having a child of a particular gender. For example, one mother of a girl, who very much wanted a boy, became devoted to non-sexist child rearing. She bought her daughter trucks and tools and was determined that the little girl wear pants. Needless to say, her daughter fell in love with dresses and Mary Janes, and refused to wear pants, resulting in an ongoing conflict with her mother.

Parents often say they want their children to be who they are rather than fulfill some parental ambition of who or what they should be. But, without realizing it, this goal is sometimes thwarted by concerns left over from a mother's or father's own life.

One mother who, as a youngster, alienated friends by being too controlling was determined to avert a repetition of this by her daughter. She stifled some of her daughter's behaviors which, although quite positive, seemed “bossy” to her because of her fear that they might lead to the same outcome she had experienced as a child.

A father identified his son's good nature with his own readiness to accept how others treated him, no matter how poorly. He looked for ways to help his son become more aggressive, pushing him into karate and criticizing cooperative behavior that he considered too conciliatory.

Parents sometimes worry about sibling rivalry because they remember difficult relationships with their own siblings. Their determination to build good relationships among their children provokes such strong responses to the most typical rivalrous behavior that children become even more resentful of each other.

Sometimes we try to redo our own lives, repair our mistakes or fulfill lost ambitions through our children. Perhaps, we imagine, our own path not taken will be followed by a child. The failure to excel at a particular subject in school or to develop a wished for talent is experienced by a parent – and, as a result, by the child – as a failure.

Both negative expectations – the anticipation of characteristics we don't want to accept – and positive expectations – the ambitions we dream of for our children – can be equally intrusive in the development of the real child. Behavior seen from the vantage point of negative expectation is often then viewed as problem behavior. Despite our good intentions, we may try to correct something in our child simply because we identify it with something we don't like in ourselves. We have difficulty seeing our child as someone separate from ourselves.

In the same way, if we are focused on having a child fulfill some ambition of our own – to excel in athletics or achieve high enough grades for a particular school, for example – we may fail to see and nurture a child's own special abilities or positive attributes. Recognizing and giving approval to a child for her strengths and abilities is the needed vitamin for development.

How can we provide this needed vitamin?

  • Don't fool yourself into believing you have no secret wishes for your child. Facing those directly will help you separate them from who your child is.
  • Think about your own life and recognize that your child is entitled to her own. You are not your mother and your child is not you. Her life will be different from yours.
  • Identify what your child is good at and focus on that, even if you don't identify with it at all.
  • All children get stuck at certain points. This is not your imagined perfect child. Parents are also teachers and the best way to teach is to start where a child is. Don't get caught up in your own disappointment, but instead think about how to help your child move ahead.
  • When children do need help, that is neither their failure nor yours.

Enjoy your child for who he is, not for who you imagined he would be!

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