Enough or Too Much?

When do high expectations become too high? Not every parent has a child with special needs, but every parent faces this dilemma. In order for my child to grow, I need to let her push her boundaries. Sometimes I need to push her boundaries for her, beyond what she thinks she is capable of accomplishing; riding a bike was like that for both of my girls.  Sometimes in the process she will fail, but if we look back at the pivotal experiences in our own lives, we know how formative these failures can be if, from them, we learn resilience. On the other hand, if I push my children to struggle toward goals that are obviously unrealistic or take too high a toll on them, I give them only the pain of failure, not the consequent growth.

Life in the Cohen household has not been easy of late. In September Sam came home from P.E. with the news that she would like to register for a lifeguarding class. We approved. Privately the teacher, my husband and I agreed that, even if she did manage the certification, we would never, ever, allow her to apply for a lifeguarding job. Given her attention deficits, we thought it unlikely that she would notice a drowning victim, and a person in trouble cannot give the rescuer “fifty per cent extended time” the way an IEP does. Nonetheless, we signed off because she wanted to try the class and we did not want to thwart her before she even tried. For better or worse, it turns out that I had no idea what lifeguard certification involves. Sam said the biggest challenge would be diving to the bottom of the pool without goggles, and I thought she could succeed. Two weeks later, she retrieved the brick sans goggles, and I congratulated myself for making the right call. Soon she passed CPR and choking victims, and again I applauded my sagacity.

Then rescues began—spinals, submerged victims, active rescues. Sam struggled. She worked with a family friend but still struggled. Last week was the test, and the P.E. teacher and I agreed that I would be on standby. Sam rescued the submerged victim and pulled the flailing victim to safety, but she did not properly immobilize the victim with the spinal injury. That is to say, she failed. She actually mastered more than any of us expected, and the teacher and I praised her to the hills. But a failure on one section is a failure on the test.

At first she was a little teary but remarkably sanguine. She said she would try the class again in the spring. When she arrived at the next class, however, one of her classmates was sitting in the lifeguard chair. I guess that made the outcome real. She apparently started screaming that she was a failure and could not get in the pool because she was overcome with jealousy. The teacher called me, and Sam got on the phone, screaming incoherently. Twenty minutes later she called again from the nurse’s office asking to come home. The weekend stayed ugly. Lots of talk about being a failure, about having lost the respect of her classmates because they succeeded where she did not, about being expected to feel happy for them when she felt the opposite. In other words, lots of “neurotypical” feelings expressed in a very atypical manner.

I was not particularly interested in discussing her feelings. That can come later. I was more interested, and thoroughly appalled, by the intensity of the public meltdown. I told her it has to stop. No one who behaves that way is mature enough to be a lifeguard. Furthermore, when it comes to losing the respect of her peers, no one cares about the lifeguarding test; they care about her behavior. As I said, it was an ugly weekend.

She is trying hard to manage her emotions. One day this week she called to say that she wasn’t sure she could go to her drama class, because one of the new lifeguards is also in that class with her. We talked for a few minutes, she regained her composure in the nurse’s office, and then, she reports, she was able to return to drama. No meltdowns. Small victory or just the passage of time? Who knows.

So, my question is, was I wrong to encourage Sam to try lifeguarding? I knew that her gross motor skills are not stellar. Should I have tempered her expectations earlier or aborted the effort when failure seemed imminent? The truth is that, even as I’m living with the fallout, I don’t know.

Here are some things I do know:

  1. If I don’t have high expectations for my child, no one else will.
  2. If I keep my aspirations “reasonable,” she’s unlikely to exceed them.
  3. Every person experiences jealousy and failure, so we need to learn to deal with these feelings while we still have a support system in place.

Here are some things I don’t know:

  1.  Is Sam capable of controlling her impulses?
  2. Will she learn to manage her negative emotions if she confronts them often enough and she has people to support her?
  3. Am I delusional in my thinking about the life skills she can master?

We all know that our goal is supposed to be helping our children reach their potential. What if we don’t know what that potential is? What if the road to reaching that potential is strewn with so many potholes that, even if they do make it to the goal, they are battered beyond repair?

The related question, unique I think to people with neurodevelopmental differences, is how much do they learn from their failures, disappointments and challenges? Kelly, Sam’s sister, is having a miserable year in middle school. All of the adults in her life, having survived middle school ourselves, empathize with her even as we shake our heads in despair at some of her behavior. But we all know that she will survive and that she will have an even stronger sense of her own identity by the time she has weathered this storm.

That level of confidence is not as well informed by experience when it comes to Sam. The causal relationships she identifies can floor me, because they are so off- base. Yesterday she burned a batch of cookies because she forgot to set a timer, and she blamed Kelly, who was in a different room, for having distracted her by saying something in a bad British accent that offended Sam’s sensibilities. Without an accurate understanding of how one action effectuates another, how can she learn from her mistakes? Also, the intensity of her physiological response to anxiety makes learning in the moment impossible. Is she capable of applying coping skills that she previously practiced in a well-regulated environment to situations in which she is, ahem, not so well-regulated? Constant failure that serves only to destroy her self-esteem is certainly not beneficial.

I do not have the answers. It’s clear that I want to push her toward greater independence faster than her therapists do. But the therapists also thought riding public transportation alone was a mistake. We are on year three of that experiment, and Sam has demonstrated some problem-solving skills that surprised us all. I guess the bottom line is that I may be delusional, but I’m also watchful. I expect that I’ll keep questioning myself, but whether they turn out to be delusions or viable hopes, my expectations will probably always stretch farther than everyone else’s. In thirty years I’ll come back to report on whether or not that was a good idea.