Not-So-Great Expectations

The less you anticipate from your kids--starting from conception--the more you'll enjoy their accomplishments.


You can divide first-time parents into two groups: those who fantasize about a child following in their footsteps, and those who lie awake at night worrying that a child will follow in their footsteps.

I really wanted a girl our first time out, for the simple reason that I've never been a girl. Having been a boy, I knew exactly what was in store for any child who happened to inherit my Y chromosome: He would love sports but be very bad at playing them.

I thought I'd caught a break when our firstborn, a boy, turned out to be deaf to the siren call of leather-wrapped projectiles. (Harrison once asked if we could leave during the first inning of a major-league baseball game.) But then one Sunday afternoon, I heard words I'd thought would never be spoken in my home: "Dad, do you want to play baseball with me?"

It wasn't Harrison asking. It was his sister, Meredith. I hauled out the gear, and soon she was happily ripping line drives all over the backyard.

Meredith has always been physically precocious. At 6 months she taught herself to stand, and at 8 1/2 months to walk. Her brother, two years older, had also been an early walker, but there was one big difference: Whereas he was easily bored with anything requiring repetition, she repeated movements until she mastered them. In the two and a half months between the milestones of standing up and taking her first steps, she practiced. My wife and I joked that our little girl was already doing sets and reps: down, up, down, up.

As she grew from toddler to sprinter, we let Meredith try any sport she showed interest in, and she turned out to be pretty good at most of them. But that made me wonder, as much out of fear as hope, if she'd inherited her father's obsession with games played on chalk-edged fields.

One November afternoon, late in Meredith's third soccer season, I realized that something was wrong. She was increasingly unfocused on the field, making more mistakes in this game than she had in the season's first outing.

The game ended, and Meredith rushed to the sideline ahead of her teammates, looking adrenalized for the first time all day. The post-game treat was Little Debbie brownies, something she never got at home. The game that preceded the snack was out of her mind; indeed, she didn't mention it once on the drive home. That's when it hit me: Somehow, the sport-specific section of my genetic code had reprogrammed itself, giving me a child who was pretty good at the games she played but cared hardly at all about their outcomes.

I hadn't dared wish for this, back in the days when the ultrasound images of my daughter were blurry even as my fears were terrifyingly specific. But that's one of the great joys of parenthood: Whether your expectations are fantasies or nightmares, they're always subject to review. You can't do anything about your kid's biology--you and your partner may determine the ingredients, but nature writes the recipe. However, once that bun's out of the oven, the hopes and fears are entirely up to you. Choose wisely.