What do you expect?

Wednesday was February 11th.

The 100th Day of School. For some reason this is a big deal (although I never remember doing anything to mark this day when I was in school and thankfully, I didn't have to do any kind of 100 things project with the kids like some of you did.)

The day Mercury got its sorry ass out of retrograde and back into proper orbit, thank you very much!

And, if my grandmother were alive, it would have been her 107th birthday. Happy Birthday Helen! (Pronounced the French way, Helène, and we never, EVER called her Grandma.) 

I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot this past week. Most likely because I have been watching a lot of Downton Abbey. In my mind, and in reality, my grandmother was a complex woman who was a mix of Mrs. Hughes and the Dowager Duchess Violet Crawley, with a dash of Mrs. Patmore thrown in for a bit of spice. 

It is interesting (and frustrating) to watch Downton through a feminist lens.  (Spoiler ALERT - stop reading now if you haven't watched Seasons 4 and 5). I find myself rooting for Edith and her writing career and single motherhood and wish they would explore this further, wanting to slap Mary for her coy, better than everyone else attitude, and loving Maggie Smith's delivery of Violet Crawley's poignant and biting lines so perfectly every single time! 

The expectations of proper behaviour and everyone, especially women,  knowing their place in the world of Downton and 1920s England is such a predominant theme of the show, that after binge-watching Seasons 4 and 5 over the course of a week, I can't help but think about and see how these very same kinds of expectations actually affect us all to some degree in 2015 as well. 


A few months ago I read something that made me have what I would call a LIFE CHANGING epiphany. So much so that I have had to sit on it for a while, mull it around in the depths of my memories and watch it play out as I recapped most of my early life and childhood. It all kind of gelled for me a few weeks ago.

I had crowd-sourced my online friends for some good podcasts to listen to on the days that I spend close to 2 hours driving my kids back and forth to their various after school activities. High up on that list was an NPR show called Invisibilia. This new show, hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Speigel, explores the intangible forces that shape human behaviour – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. The first episode I listened to (and have since listened to at least two more times) is called "How To Become Batman" and is about how profoundly the expectations of others can affect us. Lulu and Alix interview researchers and scientists looking at this phenomenon as well as a man named Daniel Kish. Daniel is blind. He has no eyes, he lost them to cancer as a toddler, and yet, he claims that he can SEE. Really, you must go listen to the whole podcast, you'll be hooked. And now, I can't get the concept of expectations as a force that shapes us out of my head.

The epiphany article I read earlier was published in 2011 in Psychology Today and is titled "The Trouble with Bright Girls". It talks about how girls and boys in the 5th grade differ in terms of how they interpret and then perform difficult tasks and why this difference exists. And perhaps not surprisingly, it all comes back to expectations. 

...bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

Think about this a bit.  At a very early age, the expectations that "boys will be boys" and that girls need to focus on being good and "sugar and spice and all things nice" is already being felt by our children and embedded in their minds. 

And this is when it all hit me and I had that AHA! moment.

I can attest to this kind of messaging from my youth. A lot of it from my former governess grandmother. And almost all of it was about how to be a "good" and proper young girl. How to sit properly (cross your ankles, not your legs), how to eat properly (no soup slurping), how to set a table properly and which fork and spoon to use. I was told that a lady doesn't laugh TOO loud. She never makes a scene. She must sit up straight (Helen would run a very boney knuckle down our backs if we slouched). We had a set of the giant Encyclopedia Britannica books and on most nights I would have to walk up and down the hall with one balanced on my head. You know, for my posture. Funny thing, I don't recall my brothers ever having to do this.  

As I reminisce about all of this now, I can't help but wonder at the expectations that she and others had for me to be such a good and proper girl and how these affected my own sense of self-worth as I grew up.  I dug out my old report cards from Grade 4 to Grade 7 and the amount of time that I was referred to as a "good girl" in the comments from my teachers was indeed rather ridiculous. I also called my mom and asked her to find my younger brother's report cards and read them to me and the phrases, "needs to concentrate" and "must make greater effort" were written in his comments more often than any mention of his "good" behaviour. My mom also read me an excerpt from her own Grade 5 report card (seriously, the woman keeps EVERYTHING) and the comment that stuck out was that "she controls her emotions". So, you know... these kinds of expectations have been going on for quite a while. 

Grade Five

Grade Five

But if the message you constantly receive growing up is that your goodness is your most important trait, where does that leave you? And if for some reason you don't meet the expectations of goodness that people have of you, what does that do to your self-esteem and self-confidence? 

I'll tell you what it does. It makes you hide. It makes you ashamed of anything "bad" that you do or feel or think or that happens to you and you'll do whatever it takes to keep up the illusion of "good", both for yourself and for those around you. Back at Downton, think about Edith and her illegitimate child. She'd rather concoct an elaborate ruse with her Aunt and go away for months to hide her pregnancy, then have a bastard child in the midst of life at the Abbey. Because of expectations. A good girl doesn't do that to her family or the family's GOOD name.

So yes, I truly believe that the expectations that others have of us are immensely powerful. They can be at once empowering and also debilitatingly paralyzing.  

When we watch Daniel Kish, a man who is completely blind, riding a bike, it's one of those mind-blowing moments. FOR US. Because of our expectations of what a blind person can do. For him, it's just regular, every day, life. And it's not just him thinking and believing and Little Engine That Could -"I think I can, I think I can" -ing it up the hill. It was his mother not interfering with him being the unstoppable climbing child and exploring his world, it was her not stopping him from clicking and discovering echolocation, despite others telling her his behaviour was not socially acceptable, and it was her not stopping him from getting on a bike. It is because of his mother and others around Daniel not putting "blind people can't do that" expectations on him, that he can see (yes, he says he can actually SEE), and do all that he can.  

The paralyzing part of expectations, especially those that are specific to gender, comes when we start hearing at such a young age that girls shouldn't do {_______}, or boys don't play with {_______}, or that it's more important to be a good girl than it is to be a curious one. Or that boys aren't supposed to be emotional and girls are valued more for their obedience and not their thoughts and actions. 

The Always #LikeAGirl commercial that was aired during the Superbowl is a prime example of this concept of expectations and their effect on young girls. And it is right around the ages of 10-12 (Grade 4/5) when we see this dramatic change in confidence in girls. 

I believe a lot of these expectations are driven by fear. In Downton Abbey, there is the fear that the world around the Crawley family is changing and certain members of the household (both upper and lower) cling dearly to the way things were to maintain a sense of order in their lives. Fear is a powerful force in the parenting world as well. We all have certain expectations of what our kids can and can not do and whether we are right or wrong, those expectations affect our children, are internalized by them and will follow them throughout their lives.

In the Batman Invisibilia podcast, Daniel Kish's mother tells Lulu and Alix how she had to abandon her fears for her child in order to let him become who he is today. I can't help but think about her making that kind of conscious choice and am in total awe of her. I also wonder how different our world would be if we could all abandon some of our fears and let go of our expectations to a greater degree. If we looked at people of different genders, people with all kinds of abilities, people from different parts of the world, without so many of our limiting expectations. What if we too left our fears behind and started to believe in people beyond what we expect or more importantly, what we have been taught to expect? 

Can you just imagine the feats of mind-blowing-ness that could be accomplished in that world? 

I don't know about you, but that is a world I want to be in, one that I'd like for my children and one that I'll gladly re-examine my expectations for.