If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my journey as a parent, it’s that expectations can be your undoing. In terms of expectations, mothers are doomed from the start. From the day we pee on a stick and see pink lines, we are an expectant mother. Our pregnancy bible is entitled What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and we devour the information between its covers because pregnancy is so new and different and impending parenthood is equal parts exhilaration and terror. We want to be prepared…as much as anyone can be prepared for the arrival of something so much a part of oneself and yet totally unlike anything anywhere else. While our children begin their lives unencumbered by the existence of expectations, we embark on our parental career ready to measure them against the rubric of the typical. And that’s the point when we make our first big mistake.
I knew fairly early on that our sons were not typical. They did not follow growth and development charts. They were on their own schedules. Things their peers were readily learning, our sons could not. They skipped letters in the alphabet and struggled to write their own names. They were uncoordinated with sports and were unable catch a ball or skip or follow rhythm. Physicians noted their shortfalls while reassuring us that they were fine. In school, they displayed obvious intellect while retelling stories or playing creatively, but rote memorization of math facts escaped them. They began to get poor marks on tests science and social studies tests despite knowing the answers when asked orally. We were frustrated. We knew they were intelligent, but their grades didn’t reflect it. Teachers told me they weren’t trying, but I knew how hard they worked. I could see their constant struggle to keep up and fit in with expectations they now innately understood by watching their classmates and receiving their report cards. When we finally realized that they had learning disabilities, the damage had been done. Our sons no longer believed they could be successful. Expectations were crushing them.
This year we pulled them out of traditional school and did what we swore we would not. We put them into a special school, a school for children who think differently, a school for the atypical. We’d been hesitant to take this route, fearful of pointing out to them and to others that they weren’t measuring up in regular schools. But the time for denial being a river in Egypt was over. They needed help…no matter what that help looked like. Their new school was a big adjustment for me. You see, there are no grades there. None. Kids aren’t in 4th grade and they don’t earn letter grades. They’re not evaluated that way, and teachers and students don’t discuss grades. They discuss progress. They discuss solutions to struggles. While the kids are evaluated regularly, they are assessed solely on improvement. If they’re improving, they’re on the right track. If they’re not improving, it’s time to re-evaluate how they might learn better and pursue a different route. It’s so simple it’s scary.
And, honestly, this new system of analysis did scare me. I was so tied to our traditional conventions that the variation seemed dubious. As a culture, we subsist on numbers and quantitative results. Our conversations with other parents about our children often revolve around concrete standards. Bobby came in First at State. Jimmy has a 4.0. Sue got a 1300 on her SATs. Hey. I get it. It’s an accomplishment and a feather in our caps when our child is successful in a way that we can readily point out. I know from personal experience, though, the other side of that equation. When our sons were earning C and D grades, I perpetually feared having someone ask me about their report cards. I knew that based on their grades our boys would be marked as sub par by others, and that was frightening. And now when they’re getting no grades, well that’s even scarier. When you tell someone your son is “around the 4th grade level and is a consistently improving student,” they look at you as if you’re sporting three heads. No one is up for flexible standards of personal success although that is the only type of personal success there is…the personal kind.
If we’re going to live by expectations (which we seem bound by human nature to do), perhaps we could be a bit more flexible with our assessment of others? We could accept steady improvement as our rubric. We could value overall forward progress over typical milestones because the truth is that not everyone is typical in every way. Our sons are slow learners because their brains process information differently than the majority. So what? It’s taken me almost 46 years to believe that a piece of paper doesn’t prove wisdom and all the outward success in the world doesn’t make you a better person than the next guy, and that makes me a pretty slow learner too. I’m learning to let go of expectations and becoming more patient with myself and with others. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but I’m making progress just like my sons. By the end of my life, I like to think I will have evolved not just to standards but beyond them in ways that are immeasurable.
I threw away the books that told me how my children should be. I now appreciate them for how they are.