I’ve written a lot lately about expectations and how damaging they can be. I wrote about those who expect you to follow their example, those who expect your obedience, and those who expect you to act in service of their power over you.
But there’s a flip side of expectations, and it is just as damaging.
I and many others throughout your life will tell you that you can do anything you want to do. When I say that, I mean that you have a virtually unlimited slate of choices out there just waiting for you to pick among them. I mean that I want to help you learn how to make wise choices, and support you in whatever choices you make.
Not everybody who tells you that, “you can do anything you want to do,” will mean the same thing by it. Many will add an unspoken expectation to the end of that sentence: “you can do anything you want to do, so why aren’t you doing __________?” “You can do anything you want to, so why are you choosing to do something I feel is unwise?” “You can do anything you want . . . so why aren’t you living up to my expectations?”
Praise has an insidious side. This back-handed praise is the most obvious, even a well-meaning compliment has its dark side. Your mom and I have even made a concerted effort to avoid saying “good job” to you when you accomplish a major milestone like learning how to sit up or roll over, because we don’t ever want you to feel as though you must earn our subjective approval in order to give you fulfillment for the things you do. Instead, we seek to make objective observations: “You sat up!” “You put that toy back together!” “You rolled over all by yourself!”
Of course, you’re too young, and your communications skills are too undeveloped, for any of this to mean much to you right now. At this point, we’re really training ourselves! We’re building habits so that when you’re older, we can still talk to you this way. If you should go into sports, we can replace vague compliments like “You played very well!” with objective observations like “You scored a touchdown!” or “You turned a double-play,” and let you decide what that achievement means to you. If, as both of us did, you dedicate much of your life to music, we can replace “You played that section very well” with the observation “you played that passage in tune.” . . . making it clear that we observe your accomplishments, but letting you derive your own value from them rather than giving the impression that we value you for what you can achieve.
There’s another dark side to praise as well. It’s scientifically proven that the more we are externally incentivized to do something, whether through positive or negative reinforcement – the carrot or the stick – the less we want to do it. The last thing I want to do is kill your desire for something you love by praising you for it repeatedly, so that when your mom and I are no longer around to offer that praise, you no longer enjoy doing the thing you once loved.
So what it comes down to is this. Many of the good, well-meaning parents I know think it’s a positive thing to have extremely high expectations of their children. There is a raging debate in our culture as to whether the carrot or the stick – positive or negative reinforcement – is more effective at getting one’s children to live up to those expectations.
I believe a better alternative is to have no expectations, and to reject the use of either positive and negative reinforcement as behavior-modification tools . . . because as I’ve tried to communicate throughout these letters, behavior isn’t the point of my relationship with you! My relationship with you is the point of my relationship with you.
It’s not that I don’t think you’re an amazing person, or that you’re capable of doing anything you put your mind to . . . rather, it’s that I want you to be free to make those decisions about your path without feeling as though you’re doing so to earn my approval, or your mom’s, or anyone else’s. As I’ve already told you a couple times in these letters, I will do whatever I can to communicate to you the path I think is the wisest one for you to take, and then I will walk with you down whatever path you choose.
But I want you to choose. I want to raise you as a person who is equipped to make wise choices, and who makes those choices not because you’re trying to earn another person’s validation or because you’re afraid of an externally-imposed consequence – the carrot or the stick – but because they are what you want.