Monday, July 16, 2007

Never Had to Worry About Disappointment

Over the past decade plus I have learned that being a parent means often enduring something in order for your child/ren to be happy that otherwise you would not do. Like enduring a kids' movie that has little redeeming value other than entertainment. Yesterday afternoon I took our two youngest boys to Ratatouille, the new Disney release about a rat who becomes a chef. Matinees and my attention span really do not mix very well, and I usually end up having a rather expensive nap during that time period. It is, though, an opportunity for some nice rest in a dark, cool place on a hot summer afternoon, so perhaps the $5.75 price tag is worth it, although I'm still mentally debating that.

Yesterday's movie was for me a sleeper. In fact as we were leaving the parking lot, one of my boys said, "Dad, what did you think of the movie?" "Well, I got to spend a few minutes napping," was my curt reply, to which he said, "Yeah, it really did move kind of slow. On and on, talking, talking, talking, with no real point." Rather incisive for a twelve-year-old with ADD.

I was, however, able to take one line from the movie that perhaps made it worth the ticket price. It is a scene where Remy the rat is talking with someone about not meeting another's expectations. "I've never had to worry about disappointment before," he said, "because no one has ever had big enough expectations of me for that to happen." (This is probably a paraphrase, for those of you who are citation purists).

I found that sentence meaningful because it says a lot to me about the task of adoptive parenting, which often involves placing upon a child higher expectations than s/he has ever had before in life. Children who spend their early years in dysfunctional families affected by abuse or chronic neglect typically do not have to worry about (appropriately) high expectations from the adults in their lives. It may be that their adult caretaker is consistently drunk, high or absent. Or it could mean that the child/ren him/herself has had to be the most "healthy" person in the family, which leads to parentification (expectations unnaturally high). Whatever the individual factors, most kids growing up in these kinds of situations do not have the luxury of adult caretakers who have expectations of success.

And if there are little or no expectations for success, there is no possibility of disappointment, which makes it "easy" for both the adult caretaker and for the child in question. By "easy" I do not mean happy, nor do I mean healthy. I simply mean that it's a lot easier to just ebb through a day, just barely surviving, than it is to establish goals or markers for success along the way. While I understand and am somewhat sympathetic to the reality that chemical addictions and emotional or psychological diagnoses can create such a living environment, I believe it is rarely in a child's best interest to subsist in this way.

Recently our oldest son and I were having a conversation in which he disclosed to me that there are time when I am "intimidating," to use his words. Since the time he arrived in our family at the age of eleven (he is now twenty), he and I have had a fairly close relationship, so I was a bit put off by his assessment. "What do you mean I'm 'intimidating'?" I defensively questioned. "I don't know, I just don't like to make you mad." I paused for a minute and said, "Oh, so are you saying it is hard for you when you think you've disappointed me?" "Yeah, that's it," he said.

And then I began to understand a bit more what he means by "intimidating." He means that because I have over the years placed high expectations upon him and encouraged him to do more than he thinks he can (I'm sure there are times when he interprets that as bullying), it is very difficult when he falls short of that expectation. I used the opportunity to remind him that my love and commitment to him will never waver (there were times early in our relationship that this was a primary issue, but it has since resolved itself), but that surely he must prefer a parent that has high expectations rather than one who expects virtually nothing. His basic response to my explanation was the look all parents are accustomed to receive in such a moment coupled with the monosyllabic, "Duh, dad. It just makes it harder, that's all."

Indeed it is does, my son.

When I survey the contours of our oldest son's life I have to take a moment to thank God. He entered our family's life as a sullen, angry, critical, vengeful, manipulative, untrusting, emotionally closed child. And today he is preparing to finish his fourth and final year at a fine private university, interested in maintaining a relationship with his family, concerned about making his parents proud of his work and day by day more emotionally open and healthy. He arrived having been rejected by his birth mother, one foster family (who told him they would adopt him and then never could do it because of his behaviors), and a second foster family (who simply endured him until he would be adopted). He was the parent at an early age to his three younger brothers, was in kindergarten at the age of four (getting himself up each morning with an alarm clock, according to the paperwork we read), and had little understanding of what it meant to be a kid.

Kyle is by his own account not a perfect person (nor am I), but the progress he has made is really remarkable. He has parents who have high expectations for his behavior, his lifestyle and his future, and while he has had to learn what it means to disappoint people who believe so highly in him, it will one day make more sense to him. The only thing worse than occasionally disappointing someone who has high expectations is to consistently "succeed" at virtually nothing.

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