When Eva was first diagnosed as blind and deaf, I tortured myself with this image of her crawling across a pitch black room. No light, no sound. Impenetrable. Isolated. I imagined myself losing my sight and hearing and I thought, what could be worse? How will I communicate with her? How will she learn?
Today, I listened to an episode of the fantastic podcast Invisibilia called “How to Become Batman”, and revisited those expectations of what Eva’s experience of lifewould be. The show got me thinking. In fact I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time I stop to try and nut out the thoughts they get too complex and I go down too many tangents. That must mean it’s important.
Invisibilia is an NPR podcast hosted by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller which explores the “invisible forces that control human behaviour”. I’m new to it. And it’s pretty fantastic.
This particular episode was about our expectations and the power they can have over us and others.
The start of the episode piqued my interest as a teacher. It’s a widely known teaching philosophy that high expectations of our student result in better outcomes for students. So I listened and nodded along, agreeing. It felt familiar and well charted territory for me.
They looked at research where two groups of rats were labelled as either smart or dumb based on nothing. The two groups were given to humans and told they were either smart or stupid rats. From there, the smart rats went on to out perform the stupid rats, despite there being no actual difference between the rats. The only difference was the way the humans treated them. They explored this notion and then took it to somewhere even the initial scientist couldn’t buy into.
The question they posited was whether our expectations of someone who is blind is what makes them so. Now it had me interested. Could we, through our expectations, be stopping a blind person from having vision? They talked to one man in particular, Daniel Kish, who had both his eyes removed due to cancer when he was just a toddler. His mother decided to consciously not limit him and tried to let him do what a seeing toddler and child would do. She let him climb and explore and tried to ignore the voice in her head which was constantly worrying about his safety. Daniel developed an echolocation technique, created through a series of clicking noises with his tongue, which allowed him to see the world and navigate it very succesfully. Sure, he lost his front teeth at one stage, and suffered a few bumps and knocks, but we all know a few kids who can see perfectly clearly who have done that, but by the time he was six he could ride a bike, walk to school by himself, and generally behave like any other kid his age.
When Daniel was in school he talked about meeting another blind student the same age as him who had been brought up very differently. Unlike Daniel, this student had been helped with everything throughout his life, as many blind children are, and because of this, Daniel says, the expectations on him were low and he had never learned to function by himself. He couldn’t do anything alone.
I found this so interesting. I know this expectations theory has its limits. It has to. But it made such an impression on me, the idea that the expectations we put on our children, children like Eva, or any other child for that matter, could determine what they can and cannot do. If we never expect anything of them, they will never have to rise to meet that expectation. Or worse, if we expect negative things for them, they may just meet them.
This is not magical thinking, or an overly glass half full mindset, I don’t think. It’s the reality that if we assume our children will never walk, or talk or do anything, we may be part of what is preventing them. We may inadvertently hold them back. Never give them a chance to stand and fall because we assume it won’t lead to those first steps.
There is a flip side to this of course, which is that why should walking and talking and things we tend to find important be the be all and end all of achievements? Coming to terms with that part of the equation was the hard part for me, and involved changing my own expectations of what a good life entails, not just for my daughter, but for me. The reality is there’s no reason those things we think of as the IMPORTANT things in life should be. There’s no real reason we should place more emphasis on them, except that we always have.
What this idea around expectations means to me is that we should no more assume what they won’t do as what they will; we should not set impossible expectations or feel rigidly attached to the ones we thought were important, but we should also not limit our children to a preconceived idea of what they can or cannot achieve. Eva continually blasted through my expecations, and as she got older, she would have continued to. Who knows what she could have achieved if I had never put those limited expectations around her in the first place. I don’t kid myself. I’m not saying she would have become a lawyer, or even been able to talk. But she could have “seen” and experienced the world in her own way and achieved great things.
The other thing which stuck with me was the description of sight and sense that these blind people had. Daniel described being able to “see” through his echolocation. They talked about touch and sound being such big tools to aid in this. Eva didn’t have hearing. At least not in any functional way. But she did have touch, and she made the most of it. As I listened to a man who couldn’t see in the way I could describe his vision, I looked at Eva on my wall and smiled at the thought that her experience, while not mine, was whole and complete. That it was hers and wasn’t lacking. What was lacking was my ability to comprehend it.
That vision I had of Eva, isolated, impenetrable, crawling through a black hole of space, was so far off. My expectations of her reality and her capabilities was so skewed to begin with. I came to understand, and I like to think I would have gone on to have these revelations about her life and abilities if she were still alive.
So many of my own expectations have been blown away by my experiences with Eva. By who she was. By what she meant to me. By what I thought my life would be. I don’t want to place any more expectations on my life. I want to see where it takes me. I want to talk to other parents and share their stories of how they moved on past their expectations to find joy and life and a new normal with their children. I want to show that having those expectations for you and your child crushed can be so hard, but when you let them go there is an amazing sense of freedom on the other side. Both for yourself, and for your child.
To listen to the specific episode of Invisibilia click the logo below, otherwsie check out their whole podcast here.