Thursday, November 14, 2013

Attention, Children: Disappointment Happens

Several weeks ago, I was at the local Chick-fil-A with my kids for superheroes night. As part of the evening’s festivities, the restaurant raffled two very large balloons of Batman and Spiderman. My kids were playing in the sequestered germ factory at the time of this announcement, and I decided to keep them ignorant of the contest to avoid stuffing a large mylar object in my car just to watch it slowly deflate in the corner of my home over the next two weeks.

The winners were selected and one boy sitting near me, who appeared to be four or five years old, fell to the floor in a puddle of tears and then proceeded to kick the table out of anger that he did not win a balloon. The response of his father was as follows, “I’m so sorry, son. I know you really wanted one of those balloons. Tell you what . . . we will head over to Party City right after dinner and you can buy one just like it. How does that sound?”


If the kid can’t learn to cope with the disappointment of not winning a balloon, he is in store for some serious tragedy later in life, like not getting the seats he wants at a concert or something. How about instead say something like this, “I know you’re really disappointed. But you know what? There were only two balloons to be given out and our number just didn’t get called this time. We don’t always get to win. Now, can you calm down enough to finish dinner and then play with your friends for a bit, or do we need to go home?”

As parents, we NEED to let our kids experience some disappointment. If we don’t coach them through those feelings at a young age, then they aren’t going to handle an unfair life very well as an adult. The more parents try to protect their kids and insulate them from any sadness and pain, the fewer opportunities they offer for kids to develop their own sense of strength.

I hug and kiss my kids every day. I tell them I love them and I think they are awesome every day. Pretty much every breakfast table conversation includes the question, “Who’s my favorite girl in the whole world?” and “Who’s my favorite boy?” (Then they usually say some other kid’s name and we all laugh and I say that I love that kid, too, but who is my FAVORITE and it’s good fun.) But I also, in age-appropriate ways, expose my kids to hurt and disappointment. Why? Because I do love them so much and I want to help them learn how to cope with those tough feelings. To avoid doing so is just cruel. Kids need those skills now, not suddenly to navigate them once they turn eighteen.

So I want my kids to know the following:

If you forget your homework and you are old enough to be responsible for your own stuff (which my nearly eight-year-old daughter is), I am not going to rush to school to bring it to you. You are going to have to face getting that zero in the grade book. I am guessing that won’t feel so good and you might be a little more careful the next time. (If, on the other hand, I take your homework folder out of your backpack to look over your work and then get distracted and put it down somewhere and then have no idea where I put it, I will take ownership of that and let your teachers know . . . not that such a thing would ever happen.)

You aren’t going to be invited to every party. I know . . . it isn’t fun to hear other kids talking about the birthday party they just attended the night before. But you aren’t going to get to do everything. That’s OK. You both have experienced this already. You were sad and I was sad for you. We talked about it. You moved on. There are times that kids only can invite a few people to an event. It doesn’t mean that they are mean kids or they don’t like you. Don’t worry, though; I’m paying attention. If you are the only kid in class not getting invited to a party or you never get invited to any parties, I’ll spend some time thinking about what is going on there and talk to your teacher about how things are going in the classroom. You can face some disappointment, but I don’t want you to feel left out all the time. That’s not OK, either. And, on the flip side, if you just want to invite just a few girlfriends to the movies or bowling for your birthday, that’s OK, too. But, you will not go to school the next day and talk about it in front of the other kids. That’s just bad manners and unkind.

Someone out there, maybe in your class or on your street, plays piano better than you and throws a ball better than you. It’s true; you are pretty fantastic but you aren’t the best at everything. Here’s my advice. Find those people who are better than you and watch them. Learn from them. Aspire to reach the level of achievement that they have. And realize it might take a while to get there . . . or it might never happen at all. But that’s OK, because you are better at something else.

Sometime in the next ten to twelve years, a boy/girl you like, maybe even love, is going to break your heart. It’s going to suck. You aren’t going to want to get out of bed. I will be there to listen and hold the tissues and stroke your hair. I will bring you ice cream. But, I won’t talk to that person for you and ask him/her why he/she hurt you. I won’t call that person’s parents. You will need to navigate that. And you will see that when you come out on the other side of that heartache, and you will, you will be a stronger person for it.

While you are in high school, you may try out for the lead in the school play or the varsity basketball team or compete in the regional science fair. And you may not get the role or the starting point guard position or the blue ribbon. It may even be the case that you deserved to win but someone else got it anyway. That is unfair and frustrating, and it will sting. If that happens, I will not call your teacher or coach to argue how talented or athletic or smart you are. But, I encourage you to meet with the person in charge and ask how the decision was made and how you can do better next time. When I was in high school, I was one of seventeen girls who tried out for open spots on the varsity tennis team. Only three of us made it, and it felt awesome that those hours I spent on the court practicing all summer had paid off. That same year, I also tried out for all-state band. Apparently my French horn skills were not adequate to earn a trip to Ocean City. I was disappointed when some of my friends went to the beach with their instruments, but I had to admit to myself that I didn’t deserve to go.

You may not get into the college of your choice. (If you even decide to go to college. As I’ve told you, college is far from your only option after high school.) You’ve bought the sweatshirt and the pennant has been hanging on your wall for two years. But that thin envelope in the mailbox means your dream school will not be your alma mater. At least not yet. You can try again later after a year somewhere else. Or maybe become a celebrity and then get invited to that school to give the commencement speech and get an honorary degree! But by this time, I hope that you’ve had some opportunities to face other small or medium-sized disappointments here or there and you’ve learned how to manage them. I trust that you will take time to be sad, and then you will start to think about the other amazing opportunities you never considered.

When my kids hurt, I hurt. Correction – When my kids hurt, I feel like my stomach is being ripped in two and my guts are being twisted as they are pulled out of my body. I hate it. But, it is going to happen, now or later. And instead of shielding both my child and myself from that pain, I am going to help them face it and handle it in a way that makes them both stronger and more sensitive as a result. They will not want to disappoint others, because they know how bad it feels. They will not want to disappoint themselves, because that often hurts even worse than anything another person could do.

Children need us to help them with their reading and math and how to say “please and “thank you,” but they also need us to help them know what to do when yucky things happen. And for those lessons to take place, we as parents have to hold our guts in, grit through our own pain and open the door to our kids’ disappointment.