Several years ago a young mother I’d known for a long time cornered me in the frozen food department at the grocery store with two of her three children in tow. She had a glazed look in her eyes that hinted she might be considering running away from home. “I’ve just about had it,” she all but whined. I’m ready to give up.”

“Oh, look! The Rocky Road ice cream is on sale this week. That seems to help sometimes,” I said as I handed her a carton. “No seriously, I am worn to a frazzle,” she sighed. “These kids are about to kill me. They won’t mind, they don’t listen, and it seems they try to do the exact opposite of what I say. I just don’t know how to handle them.”

I stepped between her and the children with my back to the little people and whispered, “They’re not deaf, they’re just short.” She looked at me like I should be the one buying the Rocky Road. “I’m serious,” I pressed on. “They’re taking in every word you’re saying. They know how to handle you.”

Why do adults talk about the children who are standing at their feet and think the kids are oblivious? Can you imagine saying to someone across the table, “Sally has put on so much weight,” with Sally sitting next to you at a dinner party? You would never do that because she obviously would hear every word. So why do we think it’s an OK thing to do with children. Research shows babies pick up on the verbal and social cues from their parents very early. If that’s true for babies, just think how much more aware this woman’s three and five year olds were.

Besides if all these kids hear is how disruptive and bad they are, they will come to believe that is what’s expected of them. Kids generally perform to expectations. Years ago I stood in awe as Mrs. Henry’s four year old preschoolers automatically sat on the rug with their hands in their laps at story time. “How do you do it,” I asked? She smiled and very matter-of-factly said, “They know what I expect.”

Obviously it’s not always that easy, but positive expectations automatically trump the negative. Walking in to swim class with Jill and Vivian the other day another mom said, “I know she’ll scream and protest when we get in today. She just doesn’t like the water.” Her two year old had yelled and cried the entire class the week before.

“Oh I bet she’ll do a great job today,” I said smiling at the little girl. She stared at me like I was crazy. “I can’t wait. This is going to be so much fun!”

And it was. Expect the best from kids. If that doesn’t work there’s always the Rocky Road.

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