Deb Otey, Head of Upper School, on Unstated Expectations


Deb head shotThe following is a letter that Deb Otey, Head of Upper School, sent to parents on April 18 as part of her Upper School News newsletter. 

Last week, I finished reading How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims. What an enlightening book! This is a book that parents of upper school students should read. (Thanks, Bill Diskin, for loaning me your copy!) While reading the facts, helpful suggestions, and warnings in the book, my husband and I were able to discuss our own parenting strategies and plan ahead for the challenges of the next six years while our boys are still spending the majority of their time in our home and under our supervision.

Much of the book shares examples of parenting tactics that enable student independence, and in contrast, stories of parents who chose to alleviate struggle, failure, and in turn, independence for their children. The author is the former freshmen dean at Stanford. She is also a parent and writes the book from both perspectives.

This is not a new topic for parents and educators. It seems much of what we read in articles and books is reminding us to pull away and not push harder on behalf of our children. We’ve been characterized as “helicopter parents,” and our students have been challenged to have more “grit.” So, I was even more inspired that this book supported those ideas with research and data and still gave us more to think about. Without sharing all the details (so you will read it for yourself), I’ll share one specific topic that has truly gotten me thinking—unstated expectations. To explain it a bit, I’m going to talk about hot rolls. Delicious, buttered, and fresh out of the oven—hot rolls.

My mother makes the most amazing homemade bread, especially dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, and pepperoni rolls. (If you’re not from West Virginia, I’ll have to give you a short lesson sometime on pepperoni rolls!) Before my mother made these rolls, her mother (a baker at West Virginia Tech) made them. I have not had a family holiday or special occasion in the last forty-five years without these rolls. Likewise, my mother usually “pans” over 1,000 cinnamon rolls during the holidays to give to everyone in their small town from the doctors, to the pharmacists, to her hairdresser. Sandy Young can make some rolls.

Now, I am the only daughter in this family, and my sister-in-law and I lament at every family dinner about who is going to make these rolls after my mom is not able to do so. To purchase bread from a bakery or from the grocery store would surely disrespect my mother and my family history.

There have been some attempts on my part at roll making, but they have failed in comparison to my mother’s. She has never required that I make them, and she may not expect that I will learn how to make them, but I have already put this burden on myself. I will make these rolls, and they will be edible. I want to make her proud. She has set the bar high.

My parents did not go to college. My father retired as a blue-collar telephone man. My mother stayed at home with my brother and me, and she is the hardest working woman I know. Neither of them had a collegiate experience, a degree, or an alma mater they dreamed of me attending someday. They just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They have an unquenchable work ethic. They are genuinely kind and loving people. They have a strong faith. My father has courageously fought cancer for almost ten years. And, my mother makes those delicious rolls. This is the legacy they have left me. These are the expectations that I have now given myself.

So, I want to challenge us as parents today. What are the unstated expectations that we are living in front of our children? Julie Lythcott-Haims was on CBS This Morning recently, and she reminded us that we may be saying something similar to, “I’m supportive of what you want to do and where you want to go to college.” But, at the same time, we wear the sweatshirt of our alma mater everywhere. Our pens, phone cases, and license plates all share our pride with the world. Are we unintentionally placing a pressure on them to attend a school of our choosing? We are open-minded about options for our kids, but do our actions reflect our words? Are the unstated expectations we offer our children positive, and do they reflect what we really want for their futures? Maybe colleges and hot rolls represent two very different types of expectations; however, we can’t underestimate the gravity this unexpected burden places on our children.

Years ago when I was teaching middle school, a mentor told me, “Your students will catch more then they learn.” I’m hopeful that our children are “catching” from us graciousness, self-discipline, courage, commitment, and the passion to follow their dreams.