Yes, our expectations do shape our children's behavior — profoundly

For The Baltimore Sun
A Center Stage theater production gives kids a chance to grow and surprise.

One of the most exciting days of my life was when I discovered I could get "This American Life" — the public radio show that explores the nuances of humanity through interviews and storytelling — as a podcast on my smartphone. Since that glorious day, nearly every episode logged has taught, reminded or surprised me about something about life, relationships, the world, or myself.

One, called "Batman" (but not for the reasons you think), is particularly poignant.

Compellingly told through the story of a boy named Daniel Kish who goes blind as a toddler, the podcast is about how expectations can influence others' behavior.

The boy's mother doesn't treat him as if his blindness is a barrier. Wiser and braver than I've ever been, she allows him to play outside, climb trees and ride a bicycle. Without fear or boundaries, the boy grows into a man who moves so freely through the world, he says — and not metaphorically — that he can and does actually "see."

It's simple, Kish says. "If our culture recognized the capacity of blind people to see, then more blind people would learn to see."

Actually, it's all very profound, and I encourage you to call up the segment online if you've never heard it. Each time I listen (I'm on time No. 4 since it first aired in 2015), I tear up a little, marveling at the little blind boy who defies expectations, and at the human capacity to foster — or smother — greatness.

But it wasn't until several weeks ago that I realized how the Batman's story applied to the way I viewed my own children.

This month, my children were in a professional performance at Center Stage. A Black History Month extravaganza of music, recitations, dance and acting, the show was written, produced and directed by Hana S. Sharif, associate artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage. She imagined the production over a year ago, when my boys were chubby-cheeked kindergartners and my daughter was only newly potty-trained. Hana asked me then — along with the other mothers in the Baltimore chapter of my Jack and Jill group — to detail what talents my children possessed, so she could slot them accurately in the show.

This was my emailed response: My children are talented in: eating snacks; torturing each other; cracking me up. I'm not sure how we can work those in, but I'll put some thought into it.

I was being only somewhat flip.

In my head, my babies were adorable and bright the way all mothers think their children are adorable and bright. But talented? Able to be in a real Center Stage production, with lights, lines, choreography, skill? No way.

But Hana saw them differently.

Your children are stars, she told me. They can do what I'm asking. Watch. See.

Dutifully, I went along. Inside, I scoffed.

For six Sundays, my children went to rehearsals. At home, we worked on memorizing lines and dance steps, in between practicing the boys' weekly spelling words for school and rushing through dinner, baths, stories (when we could get to them) and constant sibling bickering. They groaned through my repeated commands to "do it once more." They whined that they couldn't do it. It's too hard, they cried (literally).

But Hana believed in them. And her assuredness was contagious.

Last week, my little ones joined nearly 100 other Jack and Jill youth in "The Ground on Which We Stand: An Exploration of Black Excellence." My boys channeled the Nicholas Brothers and danced a jubilant duet, resplendent in tiny tuxedos, and told the audience in bold voices all about John Henry, "one of our greatest heroes." My daughter projected her cartoon-like voice and, with confidence, announced on stage, "I AM HERE!"

And she was. I watched, like Hana said. I saw.

The pride and exultation on their faces at the close of the sold-out show filled me in a way few other things have. They were mostly indifferent in the beginning, rehearsing because they were told to. By the end, they were practicing on their own, correcting their own inflections, perfecting their arm movements. Crisper. Smoother. Let's do it once more.

Through this process, they learned not only that they could work hard, but that they could enjoy working hard. After the final rehearsal, a mother asked me, "Are your boys dancers?" That's how good they got.

In the "Batman" story, the narrator says, "Expectations, those private thoughts in our heads, are extremely powerful things, because over time, they have the ability to change the … person we are thinking about."

I know now that this is true.

My husband and I cried, seeing our babies shine like stars. Hana's belief in our children stretched us. And raising our expectations stretched the three of them.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works as vice president at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 6-year-old sons, a 5-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at Her column appears monthly.

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