I’ve worked with a lot of children. While their similarities are real and significant, their differences are what really challenge me to think about my goals for them in a new way.

I am by nature an idealist, and thus, I envision a bright tomorrow full of kind, intelligent, happy adults who were once the children in my classroom. Together they thrive, and strive in unique ways to make the world continuously better. Diverse people working together to do good.

Then a child steals the skittles I had sitting on the shelf under my desk, or lies to me about a mistake they made, or cheats on an assignment, or hits another student, or pretends to follow directions until they think I’m not looking. It is easy for someone with my lens to feel despair and disillusionment in these moments. After all, I pain-stakingly employ every strategy I’ve learned and created to teach and motivate my students to act in pro social ways. My expectations are high and teaching positive behavior rooted in social and emotional wellbeing is a priority for me every freaking day. Frankly, it is exhausting, and seeing my system “fail” is quite devastating. Parents, can I get an amen?

However, these moments have done a lot to evolve my thinking. School is such an artificial environment, and sometimes the rules of a home are as well. I often doubt whether my expectations are even serving my students well. After all, I don’t want to create a group of clones who robotically follow directions and act in exactly the same way. I also don’t want to foster habits, beliefs or behaviors that we generally frown upon as a society-like dishonesty, intolerance, disrespect, and irresponsibility. And then there is the issue of expecting “good” behavior most of the time versus all of the time. It seems intuitive to let some instances of misbehavior go. In fact, adults often celebrate a little when a child who typically follows every rule has a moment of rebellion. We see it as a sign of healthy development toward independence.

It is an art to set expectations that are in line with the goals we have for our children. There is a balance between expecting what is unreasonable and selling our kids short by not expecting enough. There is also a balance in responding to behavior we don’t want to encourage.

One student comes to mind. She was a lovely 1st grade girl who had clearly been raised to take education seriously and respect authority. She was kind, respectful, compassionate, and hard working. Very intrinsically motivated. A few times during the school year, she talked at an inappropriate moment or broke another minor rule. In those moments I had to make a decision rooted in my goals for this child. Considering her strong commitment to the goals I already had for her (empathy, kindness, integrity, etc.), most of the time I pretended not to see the behavior. I let her have a “rebellious” moment. But it was important that she think I didn’t see, versus her knowing I saw and let it go. That would undermine the message her parents were teaching her. Other times, I would reinforce what her parents had already taught her by addressing the “negative” behavior, and there would be a conversation. For her, this conversation was sufficient consequence, she overflowed with remorse, and it would be months before the behavior returned.

Another student comes to mind. His parents have, understandably, had a hard time deciding what limits to set for him. Deciding how to parent in today’s parenting climate is confusing, and these parents need support and affirmation to trust their own abilities to set goals and enforce them at home. Their hesitancy to set any limits consistently thus far has resulted in their child’s confusion around how to behave. He needs a lot more explicit teaching from me regarding pro social behaviors and the motivations behind them. Because internal motivation for these behaviors has not been developed yet, we also rely more heavily on external motivations for him at this point. Because he hasn’t had a lot of practice managing uncomfortable emotions, like delaying gratification or working on a non-preferred activity, self regulation is more difficult for him as well. You can imagine how this impacts his learning in the classroom.

Raising children in a way that encourages them to become great adults is truly an art form. I think it is important to trust ourselves and continuously reflect. And when it feels like we’re “failing,” to give ourselves grace and seek perspective. Happy Parenting.❤️