Bar breathing, very few things come naturally, without effort. Our children teach us that. We get to see up close that everything needs to be learned — to roll over, eat, walk, talk — everything.
It’s a steady structural construction. We learn how to pull ourselves up before we can learn to walk. We have to learn to walk before we can learn to run. One thing on top of the other. Slowly but surely.
But modern life moves fast. It shifts our expectations higher and higher. My kids and I have been watching the Mandalorian series. My youngest, 9, didn’t understand that we had to wait a week for them to release the next episode, he’s so used to us streaming whole series’. That’s modern life nudging his expectations ever further ahead.
But us humans can’t change that fast. Our biology doesn’t evolve as fast as our technology. This can be a problem for us dads. Regular readers will have heard the first part of this problem before, this time though we’re going deeper into it.
The gap between our expectations and reality is filled with negative emotions, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, shame. To elegantly avoid this trap, expectations should be adjusted to be more in line with reality. We have to be more realistic with our expectations of ourselves and our children.
Doing that means learning the right information to inform our view of what really is real.
Learning the right information is hard, as the media shows us repeatedly. There are people who think the US election was rigged, despite clear evidence to the contrary. There are people who think immigrants take more from the country they settle in than they bring, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. There are people who think climate change is something to be believed in, or not, despite it simply being a fact. The increase of certain chemicals in the atmosphere creates certain results.
It’s taken me a long time to understand about closing the gap between my expectations and reality. And how to better learn what is real. Doing it though has been remarkable, and made me a better man, not just a better dad.
It’s like that AA quote you — The first step to solving your problem is accepting you have one. When I accepted that my view of why I thought my kids were behaving badly wasn’t true, it became much easier to learn about child behaviour and development and then change my view. I found my knee jerk, irritated reaction became much weaker, replaced by a more curious approach. I found myself trying to understand what was really going on, rather than assuming I held the truth. I also found that, when I’m tired and stressed, my knee jerk reaction gets stronger.
These findings came about, in part, because I was taking the time to learn the right information, to set my expectations of the outside world in the right place. The other part was realising where my expectations were set and why. I wasn’t just learning about how the world really works, I was, still am, learning about myself too, about the inside world. About what I really believe in and value, because it’s our beliefs that sit underneath our expectations. If I believe neighbours look out for each other, I will say hello and smile when I see my neighbours and expect them to do the same.
I found that I value being a good dad, over one whose children always do what he says. I value being a dad who’s helping his children grow up to be the best people they can be, over a dad who has the control and authority to make his kids do what he wants them to do.
This idea of learning about our inside world is incredibly rewarding. Besides parenting, I’ve found that if I’m experiencing frustration, tension or some other negative emotional response, it’s a sign that what’s going on in my head doesn’t match what’s really going on in the world outside it. That my values, beliefs and expectations are out of line with reality.
This doesn’t mean I must automatically adjust what’s in my head, it might well mean I’m in a situation, or with people that don’t align to my beliefs and values. That my values are being challenged. And this is priceless insight because it’s helped me put myself into more situations and to collaborate with people that align to my values. This has meant I have fewer moments of tension, frustration and anger. Which has made my life simpler and more rewarding. Put simply, it’s made me better at putting myself in places where I do find it easier to do well.
While our little kids learn lessons about how the outside world works, parenting gives us grown-ups the opportunity to learn lessons about how our inside world works. But only if we take the opportunity, only if we choose to work at our parenting and ourselves.
Every week I send out an email about being a better dad. Would you like to get it too?