Presuming Competence & Expectations

Presuming competence is not code for – my kid is a genius and capable of super human abilities.  (Though some may be, it’s not a given.)  One of the things I continue to struggle with is the idea of presuming competence.  Often I don’t go far enough and other times I go too far without meaning to.  I have made assumptions about my daughter’s ability or inability that are incorrect, or at least have been incorrect in that moment.  Whether I expect her to be able to do something that she cannot, or at least cannot do today, but may well be able to do at some point in the future or whether I do not expect her to do something that, it turns out, she is more than capable of, I am treating her as though I know one way or the other.  But the truth is, I don’t know and neither do a great many of the people who come into contact with her.

The best thing I know to do is to remain in the moment with an open mind.  Easy, right?  Yet I don’t think it’s easy at all.  I find staying present very, very difficult, which is why in Buddhism they call it a “practice”.   It takes practice to stay in the present.  It takes practice to remain solidly rooted in this moment without drifting off into some future scenario of what might happen, what should happen, what I want to have happen, what I fear will happen and then all the things I do to control all of that so everything I want will occur the way I want it to, in the time frame I want.  I’m exhausted just writing about this!

My daughter continues to astonish and amaze, just as my son does.  As both my children mature and come into their own, they do and say things on a daily basis that I find utterly delightful and incredible.  But that delight is tempered by expectations.  I know this, yet find it extremely difficult to keep my expectations in check.  My expectations often cause disappointment. I don’t like feeling disappointed, so I try to turn the volume down on my expectations, but if I keep my expectations in check then am I still presuming competence?  I can go around and around with all of this endlessly.  The only conclusion I have come to is that I’m not going to always get it right, but I’m going to do my best to stay aware, stay present and open to whatever happens without preconceived ideas of what should or shouldn’t happen and while I’m doing all of that, I’m going to remember to breathe.

Breathing is good.


A wild mushroom growing out of the side of a makeshift bridge – Colorado August, 2013Mushroom


22 responses to “Presuming Competence & Expectations

  1. I still have trouble with this. Yesterday we went out for ice cream. Mia ALWAYS gets vanilla. So yesterday when I asked her what she wanted and she yelled “chocolate” excitedly I immediately said “You don’t want chocolate ice cream.” So I ordered her a swirl cone, a mixture of both. When she got it she proceeded to eat only the chocolate side. And I realized that I have a lot of work to do. I like to act as if I presume competence but my actions yesterday were the complete opposite of that idea.
    I ended up throwing out her swirl cone after a minute and buying her a chocolate one. But my first response was enough to make me realize I have a lot of work to still do.

  2. All we can do is try, at least we are trying… To not do anything would mean we presume nothing. That’s just sad. I find that often times my daughter just doesn’t want to do what I ask, like spell out something. She has every right to not want to do it. Maybe she’s bored with my questions. This morning i asked her who was coming to get her, she spelled out the name of her bus aide so effortlessly. I use a tube with the letters in abc order. This is easier for her than a keyboard. Let’s all continue to do what we can, and never give up hope.

    • Ana – exactly, try and keep trying and sometimes we get it right and sometimes not so much, but that’s also being human, so I guess we can all welcome each other to the human race!
      PS I have seen the tube used by a number of others who find it very helpful!

  3. This is a very important idea. Both the presumption of competence and remaining rooted in the present. They are both things I mindfully try to be aware of each day.
    For presuming competence its like a little dance, but isn’t it with all our children? You meet them at their level of development and try to take them to the next level. If the task supercedes their ability you take it down a notch. If they meet the challenge you keep going. That is parenting, gentle guidance, moving forward, following child’s lead.
    As for staying in the present, it is so easy to get caught up in “mind clutter” (as I call it) the what-ifs or the then-whats… My little mantra- I will deal with it when (and if) it comes.
    And breathing IS good 🙂

  4. I love this post. I need to remember that ‘presuming competence’ also applies to me as a parent and an adult. When do I presume my own competence? When do I assume that I know what I can and cannot do? How often am I wrong? For me, when I move into presuming anything I also need to grab “forgiveness” and keep it close to me. Because invariably when I get it wrong, I will start stressing until I breathe and remember to forgive myself for being human.

  5. My favorite so far, Ariane. So, so feel every single inch of this! Beautifully put. Just… just perfectly expressed. All of “our” kids should read this. This should be a book, my friend, not a blog! Thank you. Really. Thank you so much.

  6. Yes, I am dealing with this too! I am trying very hard to throw expectations out the window and be very flexible during any learning and teaching process (I am a homeschooler and mom to a 5 year old girl with autism).

    Remember the reading discussion on a previous post…people were horrified that I wanted to boil down the text for my daughter. So I tried reading text “as is” in many books to my daughter, but she still hated it most of the time. Then I figured out that some of the text is so unfamiliar to her she tunes out. So, I ended up tweaking it or finding books that are on her level in the end. She prefers rhyme and shorter stories, so I followed her lead and she loves reading again. While I appreciate the input I received in the previous posts, in the end her comprehension level is at a place that reading certain books to her just frustrates her. I mean, it is like saying “let’s read a physics book today” and saying she should like it. I presume competence, but I also try to find her level the best I can and experiment often with pushing her up a level so that I don’t get her stuck. I build in the new vocab and ideas slowly to increase her comprehension and attention.I mix in preferred books with new books. It is a delicate balancing act, but she will let me read 20+ books a day to her and loves when I read to her as she falls asleep now.

    Same with Proloquo. I had a lot of hope, but after tons of experimentation, for us it seems that her expression verbally is on par with her expression with the device. Maybe later her receptive language will far exceed her expressive and typing will be what we end up doing. But maybe not. Recently, her expressive language has increased and so we are just working on that again now. I was sad at first about Proloquo, but I am glad I know that it is about her WAY of expressing things that we need to work on (me understanding her, showing her new or more efficient ways to say things, etc), so I learned valuable lessons from the experience.

    My motto now…”Presume competence, but follow her lead and work at her optimal level in the moment.” That has been what has worked best for us, and it sounds similar to what you are saying.

  7. Presuming competence means assuming the child can do something until the child proves otherwise and even then you have to assume that the child will eventually be able to do it.

  8. i used to be a massive worrier and – in a different situation than parenting – this led to complete overthinking and paralysis. like you, i don’t always succeed, but i TRY to just focus on the moment.
    i do not always assume competence but, for most things, i assume the capability to learn, to achieve, to get there. if not at the same pace and with exactly identical results as other kids, my son will still arrive. that’s the idea.
    i might adjust this as we go, but my son is in a mainstream school, he has support, plus me at home. it is harder for some things, but delightfully so, he excels for others (not genius. just bright) every day matters. every step.

  9. Lovely post and picture. I have also been trying to get my head round presume competence – it’s one of those concepts, I think, where the harder you think about it the more complicated it gets, you know? A reminder to Keep It Simple, perhaps! 😉

    For me, it’s also about remembering that change is constant. I don’t mean this to sound like a platitude, but I believe failure is a stepping stone, not carved in stone, and presuming competence means even if he couldn’t do it today, that does not mean he won’t be able to do it tomorrow. It would be unfair of me to deny him the growth and learning opportunities he needs to progress because of my own fears. I MUST remember to give him the courage to try again (the courage to change?).

    Blessings to you and your family.

    • Yes, I agree and I also try to remember that just because my daughter doesn’t “seem” to understand something or does not answer in the way I can understand, it does not necessarily follow that she therefore does not understand. I keep thinking about how, for years, we kept dumbing down the reading material only to learn that not only can she and does she read at grade level (or maybe even above) but she reads faster than I can. However ask her to read aloud and she cannot. Ask her a reading comprehension question aloud and she will not be able to answer. Do everything silently and written and there’s no problem. The first time she answered multiple choice questions silently by pointing to the correct answer I was blown away, the second time I just watched in awe and the third time I understood, everyone had been trying to make her prove herself in a way that she couldn’t. (Sorry for the rant!)

  10. Sweet struggles of parenthood, indeed:) The idea of presuming competance is bound to shift as you beautiful children race into their teen years, too, for THEY will presume YOUR competance less and less!
    Not sure if this is helpful at all, but, along with the waxing and waning of ability that I have always experienced, I know I had tremendous difficulty with expectations and being taught. My focus was like a raging, narrow river, and a lesson was a small, weak tributary I had to turn myself to. The river raged too strong, and I could not turn myself. Processing spoken language was hard too, so I failed miserably at so much expected of me. It must have appeared that my crafty mother had given up on me, for she put little pressure on me to succeed in school. Unlike my siblings, who were told to “buckled down”, do their homework, improve their grades, etc, I was given no pressure. My mother somehow figured out that I would only learn if the subject was added to the raging river. I remember my mother would have me help her put away groceries, and I would do it so wrong. She would find things like toothpaste in the freezer, and would smile and knowingly say I must be thinking hard about something else and tried to draw it out of me, not always succesfully. BUT, she found I adored making sandwiches for my brother, and they had to be beautiful and perfect, so she would ask my brother if he wanted a sandwich (he always did). She would leave the groceries on the counter, and act like she was too busy to put them away, and say that George wanted a sandwich, and suggest I make the kitchen look beautiful, so I could do one of my amazing creations. It would take me forever, but I would get it perfect, as putting groceries away became part of the raging focus of my culinary masterpiece. This did not always work, and I could get overwhelmed, cry, or retreat. I never felt I disappointed by my need to retreat and get quiet. It was just me, and ME was a wonderful thing to my mother as she presumed competance as well as tremenous potential in her unique daughter. This belief, above all else, has been the singular tool for survival, my compass. I find my way because I presume I can. Thanks, Mom. ❤
    Thank you, Ariane. ❤

    • Chou Chou – I love hearing stories of your childhood and your wonderful mother who I envision as a beautiful japanese lantern in a lovely, peaceful garden filled with flowering plants and drooping trees, lighting the way.

  11. When I learned to celebrate the beauty my daughter brought to each and every day, delighting in how she opened my eyes to appreciate the simplicity of the moment, I no longer looked to my preconceived ideas of what “should be,” and appreciated “what is.”

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