The Power of Expectation

A lot of people think I’m crazy. Well, it’s a free world, and people can think what they want, is my response to that. What’s interesting is why they think I’m crazy.

One of the reasons people think I’m loco is that I talk – to children – even those who are just a few months or weeks or days old. And I talk to dogs, but that’s not who we’re trying to parent here (not that there’s much difference, if you ask me, and that includes toilet training! ;-)).

If I have to quiet a squalling baby, I will pick him up, and talk to him. I’ll tell him to quiet down. I’ll keep talking to him till he’s quiet. Sometimes, the baby will yell even more loudly when I pick him up. In which case, I’ll put him back down, and – yes, you’ve got it – I’ll talk to him. I’ll tell him to quiet down, and keep talking to him till he’s quiet.

Obviously, this is not how to deal with a baby who’s crying because it’s hungry, or needs a diaper change. But this is true for all the other times that babies yell.

And every single time, the baby quiets down. Some kids take a few seconds, while others take a few minutes, but never has any child taken more than ten minutes. There’s nothing magical or special about me. It’s just that I expect the child to understand what I’m saying. So I talk to the child as if it really does comprehend every word.  I don’t have the slightest doubt in my mind about this. So, whether the child has heard the words or not (heck, whether the child has heard the language or not!), I talk to it expecting it to understand what I’m saying. And the baby does understand. Simple.

I’ve shared this with lots of people who know me in real life (as opposed to digital life, via the blog). They’ve gone back happy and excited to have finally found a way to manage their kids’ crying jags – “especially when she’s so little that she can’t understand what I’m saying”.

Uh – you can guess what happens next, can’t you? They come back telling me I’m crazy. They’ve tried it with their kid and it doesn’t work. “Maybe it’s you – you just sort of ESP them or hypnotize them or something, but it doesn’t work when I do it.”

They take the idea of talking to the child and want to use it like a magic pill. Pop it in the open, wailing mouth, so that blessed peace is restored. It don’t work that way, honey.

You’ve got to believe that she can understand you. If you can get yourself to believe it (maybe make-believe the noise emanating from the pint-sized piece is annoying background music as you try to speak with the mature adult facing you!), your voice, your pitch, your tone, your eyes, your body, everything will be geared towards communicating that the baby should be quiet. And you will expect to be understood. You will expect her to understand what you are saying. And if you believe that she can, she will understand what you are saying.

This is why some people seem to have no trouble getting through to others. (Using the power of expectation is only one of the reasons, so let’s not blow this out of proportion.)  

You’ve been hearing complaints about your daughter’s disruptive behavior in class for years now, and as you drag yourself to her school for another meeting with the teachers, you’re prepared to hear more of the same. As you shuffle apologetically up to the teacher’s table, you’re taken aback by the beaming smile she gives you. ‘Must have mistaken me for someone else’, you think, as you sit down. You introduce yourself. The teacher is using words you don’t quite seem to understand: “wonderful – intelligent – lively – pleasure -”. Suddenly, your brain clicks on – she’s talking to you! About your daughter! But how?!

An amazed and disbelieving you, first speechless and then stammering with joy, gets up from that table looking surreptitiously for the broomstick the teacher sits on. You get home and confront your kid. “Your teacher praised you to the skies! What have you been doing all these years to get such bad reports about your behavior? What is different about her? What is different about you with her?”

Your daughter, in her typical communicative style, shrugs. “Oh! She’s alright. Fun sometimes, actually.”

“How does she do it?” you wonder. Well, I just told you! She expects that children will understand her instructions – whether they are about class work or acceptable behavior. And because she expects it as normal and natural, the children consider it normal and natural too, and so they deliver. They live up to her expectations.

Yup – expectations – they lift people UP – you’ve got to live UP to them – there’s no ‘down’ around here.

Think for a moment, of the opposite. You tell your son he has to help wash the car, expecting him to cheek you. Even as you tell him, you are defensive, preparing for his onslaught. Simultaneously, you are convinced about your moral right to ask him to help you wash the car. ‘Mom does lots of stuff for you. You’d better help me with this.’  No matter how stern, or how matter-of-fact or how authoritarian you might try to sound, a part of you is also preparing for him to defy you. That’s the part he cottons on to. Don’t ask me how he does it, but kids always know.

It might seem manipulative, getting kids to behave a certain way, but it’s not.

Because the power of expectation only works when you have reasonable expectations.

Your mind always knows when you’re coming from a place of ego, from a place of ‘I’m-your-parent-and-I-want-it-this-way-so-you’d-better-do-it-my-way’.  If you begin from this point, you might as well pack up and leave. It won’t work. However hard you try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

The power of expectation doesn’t take away your child’s right to make free choices. What it does do is help you create an atmosphere where such choices exist – because every moment is no longer a power struggle between you and your child.

Expect him to be reasonable about most things most of the time (don’t say “even though he’s a child?”! Children are almost the only reasonable human beings on the planet today ;-)) – expect it with all your faculties – and see him live up to your expectations. Enjoy a carefree parenting experience! 🙂

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