Great Expectations

Kids are amazing. Or so we dads think at first.

When we first hold that precious lump of pinkish, wailing flesh, we know deep down that we’re cradling greatness. Our new child will be bright and unselfish, we figure—the sort of child who will love God, never pester the dog and clean the bathroom without being asked. On the rare occasions they need discipline, they’ll thank you for it. And parent-teacher conferences? They’ll actually be bearable.

“I’ve taught little Johnny all I can,” Mrs. Piffindiddy will tell you. “He’s done with his early reader and is now reading The Brothers Karamasov to his classmates. Oh, and we sent some of his mathematical formulas up to the University in the hopes he might receive early admission. I know he’s just 6, but why hold the lad back?”

And then one day, it hits you—the day you have to rescue the cat from the dryer again or wash the anarchy symbols off the wall or tell grams and gramps that you have no idea where little Johnny learned those words. You’ll realize that you will have been a successful parent if you can just keep the kid out of prison.

Oh, I know there are some wonderful kids out there. I read about them all the time on Facebook. But let’s be honest: Most of the time, to be a dad and to keep  your sanity—especially through the tween and teen years—you’ve got to sometimes modify your expectations.

When my son, Colin, was born, we could see his promise right away. When he was reading at age 4, we imagined we gave birth to a bestselling author. When he started questioning Bible stories at 5, we assumed we had a theologian. When he was pegging ducks across the pond with pieces of bread at age 6, we were positive we had a future NFL quarterback.

But by the time Colin was 14, we were pretty sure he wasn’t going to be any of those things. Indeed, gainful employment of any kind seemed like a longshot. He rarely cleaned his room. He never ate carrots. His mother and I were excited if he ever spoke to us with more than a grunt.

Emily was different. And by “different,” I mean “worse.” Colin was a strong-willed child, yes. But parenting Emily was like raising a stuffed iron bunny—cute on the outside but completely impossible to move. You couldn’t reason with her. She could not be bribed. Punishment bounced off her like rubber balls. Her room looked like a disaster clip from CNN. Her table manners were akin to a Magyar invader. For a year, she subsisted on nothing but butter.

Their mother and I feared for humanity—at least the humanity that lived in Colorado Springs—when we let our precious children out into the world. We wondered whether Genghis Khan’s parents had similar misgivings.

And yet they both managed to graduate from high school, get into college and, in their own ways, live on their own. And believe it or not, we’ve not been contacted by the police once.

Oh, the code enforcement officer did drop by the house where Colin lives and ask that someone cut down the weeds. But—and here’s the weird thing—he did. He’s paying his own bills. He’s meeting the neighbors. He’s almost graduated from college and has a good job—a couple of them, actually—and we occasionally hear from his co-workers as to how polite and smart and reliable he is.

Emily’s now picking up after herself, too. In her spare time, she works with kids and shows the sort of loving-but-firm hand that her parents tried to show her, but never felt like we managed. Less positively, she’s now nagging her father (that’d be me) about improving his diet … and to cut down on his butter intake. The wonder of it all.

Being a parent can feel, at times, like you’re a wind-up toy constantly walking into walls. It can feel like everything you say and do is completely, utterly, pointless.

And then one day, you wake up and realize that your kids are more responsible than you knew. And that maybe—just maybe—they were listening to you the entire time.