OK, I’ll admit it — I have certain unrealistic expectations for my son. Don’t get me wrong, some of our expectations are good — we expect him to do his homework, clean his room, and be polite, for example. Others, well, are not as reasonable.
Our son Alex, who is almost 8, has started to refuse to hug our relatives hello and good-bye, which drives me up the wall, and is borderline unacceptable in my husband’s large Italian family — especially around the holidays. It’s also resulted in some fairly awkward scenes, with me alternately begging and demanding that our son hug his aunts and uncles, and Alex drawing a line in the sand, setting his jaw and backing away from relatives who are waiting for him with outstretched arms.
He has also decided that answering adults when they talk to him just isn’t necessary, and has begun to talk back and roll his eyes when we ask him to do things. (This scares me a little, because he’s not even a pre-teen yet!) When we’re at family gatherings, I find myself constantly saying, in a strained voice that is starting to verge on a whine, “Alex, Uncle Nick just asked you how school was going. You need to answer him,” and “Stop being so sassy!”
When he talks back, ignores our family members or friends or turns away from a hug, I end up feeling embarrassed and more than a little out of control as a parent. I worry about what my family and my in-laws will think of me and my parenting skills, and am convinced that they assume that we’re raising a spoiled, snotty, “typical only child.” (James Lehman’s wise words from the article Are You Embarrassed by Your Child’s Behavior? echo in my ears: “Don’t be a mind-reader. You don’t know what other people are thinking, so don’t assume that you do.” Sometimes I’m able to stay calm and take his advice — but I’ll be honest, it’s not always easy!)
I understand that kids aren’t socially adept yet, that their job is to test us as they grow up and that this is all a learning process. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that most of my reactions are really about me, my ego and expectations. Taking the hugging expectation, for instance. “He’s an 8-year-old boy,” my husband says. “What 8-year-old kid likes to hug — especially boys?” I know Joe is right, but I also worry that Alex will grow up into a detached and self-involved person who doesn’t have time for other people. In other words, I start connecting his behavior to future problems and go right to the bad place. (I imagine “the bad place” to look like the La Brea Tar Pits, only instead of saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths, there are scenes from my failed attempts at parenting and my son’s bad behavior trapped in the black goo.)
The thing is, I know that for the most part, Alex is a good kid with a huge heart…he just doesn’t always show it in front of others these days. The one exception he makes when it comes to hugging is my mother-in-law, who has been very ill this year and has Alzheimer’s. He is patient and gentle with her, but no one really sees this side of him besides me, my husband and my father-in-law.
So what to do? Since I always think of the end of the year as a time for reflection, I sat down and thought about what my expectations were for my son. Was I being fair? Which of our expectations were “needs” and which were “wants?”
Responding to adults and looking them in the eye when they talk to you was something my husband and I thought was necessary for our son to do. It’s a matter of respect and an important lifelong social skill. We put that in the “need” column.
Hugging, we decided, was not something he needed to do. (“It makes me nervous,” he said, “I just feel shy about it.”) So we both thought it was important to respect the way he felt. Yes, I want him to hug everyone and be affectionate, but it’s more important for him to listen to that inner voice that tells him to set boundaries. Instead, we just ask that he greets everyone nicely and shakes hands if possible. For the most part, he’s doing pretty well. I also have noticed that the less upset I am about it, the more willing Alex is to comply, and the less likely our relatives are to comment or raise an eyebrow. Funny how that works sometimes.
Backtalk is not OK…but I have a few years to figure that one out, right?! (At least that’s what I’m telling myself.) Future blog posts coming on that subject shortly, no doubt!
What I’m learning — and I’m not kidding myself about this, it’s a process that will probably last a lifetime — is that many of my parental expectations are often tied to my own worries, hopes and fears. So my resolution this year is to let go of unreasonable expectations, and separate what I want my child to do because it makes me feel good from what my child really needs to do for his own growth and development.
Wish me luck!
What new behaviors has your child stumped you with this year? What are your parenting resolutions for 2011?
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.