Developing ‘Play-Doh Expectations'
December 2020
By Teena Embaugh, Third-Culture Kid care specialist — This year, no matter where we live, we have all been faced with what feels like unprecedented amounts of unmet expectations, mostly due to COVID-19 and the ways it has impacted our lives.

I work with Third-Culture Kids who live with their missionary parents in a country other than their passport country. In our trainings, we talk a lot about expectations: what they are, how they are shaped and why it’s important to learn how to manage them. I love to teach with an object and give the kids a phrase that will remind them of an underlying principle. So, when I teach about expectations, I tell them to, “Keep your expectations soft like Play-Doh.” I will explain that more below, but first, let’s define what I mean by expectations.

Expectations are what we think will happen, but not necessarily what really does happen. Sometimes what we expect to happen is what we think should happen. That kind of thinking can lead to great frustration if those expectations do not become reality. Expectations come from our thoughts, imagination, previous experiences, what others have told us, or what we have consumed through TV, YouTube, or in books and other sources of information.    

Expectations can have a big impact on how we adjust and adapt to new situations and the changes that life brings us—especially in the crazy world we are living in this year. If we expected things to be different than they turn out in reality, it can lead to us feeling frustrated, angry, scared, anxious or sad about our lives. Our expectations can also lead to us feeling relieved, excited and happy if things turn out better than we thought they would.  

No matter what happens, we need to understand that God is always in control and frequently does things in a way that we may not have expected. God’s plans are always better than ours, and according to his promises, they are always for our good.  

Expectations in the Bible
As I talk with younger kids about expectations, we look at the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-27. Naaman almost didn’t receive healing from his leprosy because the cure was not what he expected. In the end, he did step out in faith into the dirty Jordan River, and God responded by healing him.

The older kids learn from Elijah, whose past experiences of victories on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18) led him to expect that God would do things in a certain way—with strength and power—and that all the people would just suddenly believe in the One True God. Elijah held on so tightly to those expectations that when God did not bring the results he expected, he ended up in a sobbing heap of discouragement in the wilderness (1 Kings 19). We look at how God responded to his meltdown by gently teaching Elijah to reshape his understanding of who God is, how he works, and what Elijah’s role was supposed to be.  

God knew just what Elijah and Naaman expected and what they needed, and he faithfully provided. We need to be confident that he has done, and will continue to do, the same for each of us. 

Managing expectations     
We often do not realize we have expectations because they are subconscious; we make assumptions about what will be based on what we know and what has been in the past. Kids are no different than adults when it comes to this, though they depend more heavily on what they have seen or heard from others because their own experiences are still fairly limited. 

Understanding that we do have expectations is good, because it helps us to think about things ahead of time. It’s still okay to make plans; in fact, there is scriptural support for planning ahead, like the ant gathering food for the winter (Proverbs 6:6-9). But it is important to think through expectations as you plan, and to remember to make plans with open hands, knowing that God knows the plans of our hearts, but he also knows the bigger picture and may have a better plan for us (Proverbs 3:5-6). 

Here are five things you can do to help manage your expectations, or to help your children manage theirs: 

1. Pray about them: Ask the Lord to help you be wise in your expectations, and to help you trust that HE is in control even when things aren’t happening like you thought they would. 

2. Read about them
: Children learn so well through story. Try reading one of the following books with your kids and then talk about the expectations the characters experienced and how they reacted.
Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weidman Sharmat
• Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
• Someone With You by Larry Libby (out of print, but used copies available)
• The Year My Parents Ruined My Life by Martha Freeman (young adult)

3. Talk about them: Think about times recently when someone seemed to overreact. Ask them if they have felt sad or disappointed about anything over the past several months, and then, ask them why. If the explanation includes phrases like: “But, I thought,” “We were supposed to,” or “You said that,” these are pretty good clues that their frustration or anger is stemming from unmet expectations. (This works for adults, too!)

4. Keep them realistic: We have to try to look at what is going on around us as we plan so that, as much as possible, we keep our expectations based on what is really happening, not just on what we want or hope will happen. Sometimes keeping our expectations realistic means that we are not excited about what the future holds, but at least it helps us not be caught off-guard. And when we know there are hard times coming, we can be intentional about going to the Lord and asking for the help and encouragement we need to get through those tough days.  

5. Keep them flexible: We need to be willing and able to adjust to whatever happens, and to reshape our expectations as we understand more and more about the situation. Here is where the Play-Doh comes in! It is soft and easily transformed from one shape into another. If you throw it up against a hard wall, it will hit with a thunk—but it will just change its shape, become flattened on one side, and slide to the floor without any harm to itself or to anything around it. By contrast, if you throw a glass at a wall, it shatters, hurts the glass and leaves painful splinters behind. 

When we hold too tightly to how we think things should be and demand that our expectations are met “or else,” it makes them hard like glass. When those expectations crash into the hard wall of reality, they can hurt the person who had those expectations, and their response can end up also hurting everyone around them.  

If we keep our expectations soft and flexible, like Play-Doh, when those expectations run into the hard wall of reality, they just take on the new shape, and we are able to adjust, move forward, and adapt to the new reality without causing too much pain to ourselves or others. That’s why we need to work to, “Keep our expectations soft like Play-Doh!

Come back Friday to see examples of what Play-Doh Expectations might look like this Christmas season.  

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Teena Embaugh
Teena grew up in Indonesia, where her parents served as missionaries. She studied to become a nurse and then served in Macedonia until 2008. Now, she specializes in caring for SEND’s missionary kids.