Before my oldest child finished his first basketball practice at the age of five, I knew I needed to re-evaluate the expectations I had as a parent.
More specifically, the ones where I hoped he’d follow in my footsteps.
There was little more important to me than basketball growing up. It taught me a multitude of things and helped me deal with difficult teen years.
Watching him during that first practice nearly broke my heart.
Not that he wasn’t athletic or that he couldn’t play … his heart just wasn’t in it. And I realized I needed to be okay with that.
I also realized I needed to accept that my children might not follow in any of my footsteps.
Not only that, but I was now the parent of a child with a recently-diagnosed mental illness. So we needed to set some new expectations tailored just for him.
There were a lot of changes with that diagnosis. A lot of give and take as we learned more about the illness, adjusted to new meds and decided which battles to fight.
We didn’t give up on sports altogether because we wanted him to be active. And also probably because I still had hope he’d maybe eventually fall in love with something. He played basketball another season. He also played soccer. He ran track in junior high and played tennis in high school.
There was a difference, though, in how we defined expectations as he played. I had no expectations that he’d be the star of the team or that he’d love basketball the way I did. I did have expectations that he would try hard, not quit and do his best in whatever he committed to do.
And that can be a difficult part of parenting regardless of the child and their strengths and weaknesses.
It wasn’t just with sports. It was with pretty much everything and the bipolar disorder amplified it all.
When he turned eight and started Cub Scouts, as the daughter of and a sister to Eagle Scouts, I really wanted him to follow in their footsteps. You know, those pesky expectations.
Becoming an Eagle Scout is difficult enough without factoring in some sort of an illness so I tried to let that expectation go. But then he set a goal to earn it so we wanted to do all we could to help him achieve it.
As he continued to advance through the program, though, the required swimming badge looked like it might be the end of it all. He just couldn’t pass it.
He worked so hard, maybe harder than anything else he’s ever tried. He put in so many hours and worked with several different coaches. But he just kept failing. We prayed. He practiced. He failed.
Eventually, after I don’t know how many months (years maybe), he finally passed it. And the Eagle award was in sight.
But 15 turned into 16. And 16 turned into 17. And it looked like it might be slipping away.
I heard my husband tell him he “wouldn’t run 26.1 miles of a marathon and then quit” about 583,492 times. We kept pushing and he kept going, although sometimes it felt like we were trudging through knee-deep mud.
Scouting was good for him on many levels and he enjoyed a lot of it. He loved learning and earning many of the merit badges, attending amazing events and activities and he was inducted into the Order of the Arrow, the National Honor Society of the Boy Scouts of America.
One of the best things about the entire journey happened as he was considering what to do for his Eagle project. His leaders and family members were giving him ideas (none of which he particularly liked), but then he finally came up with something on his own. He saw a need in the community and wanted to do something about it, which really shows the heart this kid has despite all of the negativity that surrounds him with his illness.
And, so, one day before his 18th birthday (nothing like cutting it close), he completed his Eagle project. He would later pass his board of review and we recently celebrated with his Eagle Court of Honor.
One of the heroes of this story is my husband. Because of my son’s illness, he needed to be supervised at all times, especially at Scout camp, weekly meetings and all activities. So my husband was there, every single step of the way. And that, I believe, is the definition of having high expectations for our children and helping them achieve their potential. It was my son’s goal. And my husband supported him through to the end.
Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child, said: “Expectations can be a tremendous benefit to your children’s development or they can be crushing burdens that hamper their growth, depending on what types you set for them.”
So having expectations, high ones even, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Just make sure they’re what’s best for your child and not about you.
It helped my bipolar son (finally) reach his goal – and his potential – to become an Eagle Scout.