My Parenting Resolution for 2011: To Let Go of Unrealistic Expectations

Posted December 28, 2010 by

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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?


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.

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  1. Diana Boggia, M.Ed. Report

    Whenever I work with parents I suggest they are more powerful teachers when they teach “outside of the moment”. In your case,that would mean teaching before heading out for a family visit. The teaching would provide information about the people there, what is important to them (a hug for Grandma, a handhshake for Grandpa, a kiss on the cheek for Aunt Lucia, etc) and what is important to you; eye contact for all adults and polite responses (“Yes, Mom.” “No thank You, Dad.”) for everyone. “Teaching outside of the moment” provides your expectation and is most often met with success, as children love to please, no matter what their age.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Dear Diana,
      Thank you for your great advice. I think I’ve been doing this, but not consistently. I’m going to try teaching our son “outside the moment” on our next visit.

  2. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear ‘2timemom’:

    Sometimes trying to blend a new family together does not go smoothly at all. Not only is it hard for the adults, but it’s also difficult for the kids to be asked to be in different homes and learn different rules. They can do it mind you, but it’s helpful to be understanding and acknowledge that it’s not easy for them at times. It’s quite normal for kids to miss and desire to be with the parent they are not with at present and for the mother to want them to live with her. Do your best to stay neutral in your remarks about her to the kids because it will create really hard feelings if you speak critically of her. It sounds as though you and their father don’t completely agree on how to parent the kids. Although this is very common, it’s also necessary to find a solution to this problem; to compromise and come to an agreement on house rules, etc. When there are instances where you cannot agree, it will be necessary for you to allow their father to take the lead in disciplining his children. This can be a difficult challenge for step-parents. One behavior of concern you should be able to agree on is you should not be “treated like trash” by his kids. When your step-son says something inappropriate to you, use James Lehman’s language and say, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way.” Plan ahead and ask his father to speak to him in support of you next time he says something inappropriate to you in his Dad’s presence. His Dad could say, “It not okay to speak to her that way.” We hope you are able to work out all of the challenges so that your home life if more peaceful. There is a really helpful article you might enjoy on ideas for step-parents: Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

  3. 2timemom Report

    Ok here goes!!!
    I have 2 son’s that are grown,no problems there,I am a stepmom of 2 children,1 boy aged 12 and the girl 11.
    My 12 year old stepson is at that age where he think’s it ok to treat the stepmom,like she is trash,he no longer wants me to be married to his dad,that I am a big problem in his life and he just’s wants me to go away,needless to say this is testing my marriage to my husband,after all I am not there mother as I am told this everyday,there own mother lives but 2 hour’s away,and has little or no time for them,when she does get to see them she is always saying your my babies and I want you to live with me,she play’s mind games with them.
    School is going down hill for him,because he see’s that as a way out,he thinks that he will get back to his mom!!!! that was the reason he came to live with us because he was having a hard time at school and was way beyond failing,his grades were finally starting to come up,he brought them up to a (b)now is is one strike away from being thrown out of school,he is a smart child,but he is making all the wrong choice’s, no matter how much we tell them we love them,it’s all about the choices we have,he does not care,how do I get through to this troubled boy/teenager.
    His Father says that it is his fault for not spending time with him,when he really is not addressing the issue at hand,he is giving his son a mixed message.
    I have raised my 2 son’s they are happy healthy men,Im just trying to help my husband raise his children,but Im getting to the point where I dont know if I should be here,but I love my husband,I knew he had 2 children,and I welcomed them both with open arms,his son has tried to hit me,HELP…where do I go from here

  4. Never A Dull Moment Report

    You are very wise to acknowledge your “wants” vs “needs” in terms of your son’s behavior. That lets him know that not everything is a deal-breaker and that he can have choices about his behavior within the limits that you set. That kind of autonomy will help him to grow into a an adult you can really respect, who makes choices while considering the consequences of his behavior on others. Really inspirational.

  5. brit16 Report

    Thanks for this post! I am a new mom and I am an educator. Your post is very true; sometimes we have to decide what is important. If we stress too much about everything, it would be hard to enjoy are kids.

  6. Kris Report

    I was sure you were talking about me throughout your article! It is quite difficult to separate the need for proper behavior, and the need to have it RIGHT NOW, while in front of the tribunal. You gave me great ideas to work through our challenges. Thank you.

  7. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Thanks, Brooke and Kim. It is very hard to do in the moment, believe me. Sometimes I wish I could hit the “pause” button and get a better hold on my feelings before I speak! Kim, you are so right about modeling behavior for our kids. I heard a great quote recently: “Kids learn a little from what we say, more from what we do, and the most from who we are.” Here’s hoping my son is absorbing some of the good stuff!

  8. Kim Stricker Report

    This post was right on. I always feel responsible for my child’s behavior, even as I realize they are individuals. Thank you for the helpful ways of deciding what is required versus wishful. We have a super shy boy and also a “shock jock” who loves to incite a crowd. Including family. Parenting? All we can do is model the behavior we expect. And give our children the words and behaviors we expect ideally.

  9. Brooke Report

    Thanks Elisabeth.

    I think you are very wise for seperating out your feelings and expectations.

    Alex is lucky to have you as a mom.

  10. Carol Zhao Report

    thank you,Elisabeth. it’s so lucky for me to log on this website and read your article.

    i am looking forward to your future articles.

    good luck

  11. Darah Zeledon Report

    Great post, Elisabeth. I like that you are choosing your battles and realize that kids are just being kids. Sounds like you have your priorities straight and realize what matters most.

  12. Kathy Report

    Great examples Elisabeth, thank you,

    You are clearly leaving the drama triangle out of the situation by not making excuses and rescuing your son and the moment.

    Great examples in parenting always seem to have the adult taking on the challenger or coach roles, helping the child to understand the situation at hand, while we seek to understand what is driving him.

    These moments only increase into the teen years. I know, I have three of them right now. James Lehman’s word will always stay with me, as does David Emerald’s book, The Power of TED.



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