~ Sam Abell
When Great Expectations aren’t—and why that’s great
“IEP. I Expect Progress.” This unattributed meme, circulating on social media, is one Great Expectation with which I expect we can all agree.
But more often, we walk that metaphorical tightrope, with a heavy balance bar of expectation for our child with autism. If we set the expectation too low, we risk instilling an attitude of “You don’t think I can do it. Why try?” If we impose an expectation too high, the child may foster feelings of “I’m never good enough. Why try?” We learn, whether quickly or after long and painful experience, that the only meaningful expectations are the ones that are challenging but always attainable.
The same goes for our expectations for ourselves. Too low, and we may never draw forth our child’s full potential. The expectation too high yields the same result, with the added poignancy of modeling for your child how to be self-defeating.
That’s when Great Expectations aren’t great. A recent message from a sweet and devoted parent brought this into focus: “Thank you for clarifying my many confusions . . . I hope to acquire the brain and calm like yours to understand my child and never let him down.”
To never let him down.
In first and second grade, my son Connor had one of those exceptional teachers you remember all your life. So outstanding was she that when we left her classroom for the last time, I lamented, “What are we going to do? We’ve already had the best. It’s all downhill from here.” She replied, “Not true. There are many, many excellent teachers out there.”
It then happened that Connor segued from her classroom to a summer basketball camp whose instructor was, well, not an excellent teacher. A retired professional coach whose skills didn’t always transfer to children, he spoke roughly with the kids and made some of them feel bad about themselves. Connor, an unintimidated tower of 8-year-old outrage, scolded him, “Mrs. A. would never speak to us that way! You have a lot to learn about talking to children!”
Of course I repeated the conversation to Mrs. A. when school resumed. And although she was no longer Connor’s teacher, she sought him out to give one last piece of memorable advice. “You are going to meet thousands of people in your life,” she told him. “Some of them are going to disappoint you.”
We all know this is true. What’s hard to accept is that sometimes the person who disappoints our child is going to be us.
My reader wanted to acquire “the brain and calm to understand my child and never let him down.” With his motivation, acquiring the knowledge and problem-solving skills to parent well his child with autism—a given. Using that knowledge to bolster his parenting confidence and patience—probable. Believing that he can get to a place where he will never let his child down? Highly unlikely—and I would argue that, painful as it can sometimes be to confront our human fallibility, being 100% available, strong and correct isn’t in the best interest of our children.
In my 2007 essay “What We Leave Unsaid,” I wrote
Disappointment, forgiveness, resilience. The stronger the foundation of support and unconditional love you build under your child, the better he’ll be able to handle your occasional stumbles. Learning to deal with disappointment builds that resilience. It’s one of the most valuable life skills of all, and it only comes with experience. But just as valuable, your occasional shortfalls allow him to learn forgiveness, resolution and grace—thereby giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his unconditional love for you. You both need that.
The mother/father of all concerns for most of us autism parents is, what happens to our child after we’re gone? Building in our children the robust ability to roll with life’s punches is the best fortification we can give them, and ourselves, for this inevitability. Beginning to learn it within the safety of our love is an honorable start.
© 2014 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
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