My son has trouble handling disappointment. When things in real life don’t unfold the way they played out in his imagination, he becomes distraught. This can be a challenging situation for everyone in our family, and I often ask myself why this is the case. Since I am the person who has been his primary caregiver for most of his life, I assume that this is my fault and I wonder where I went wrong.
Flashback to Christmas Eve when he was three. I remember when his angelic little self sidled up to me and whispered, “Santa is going to bring me a castle tomorrow.”
I mentally took inventory of the gifts that I had bought, wrapped, and hidden in the attic. Nope. Definitely no castle.
“Buddy, why do you think that Santa is going to bring you a castle?” I asked.
“Because I told him that’s what I wanted for Christmas.”
“You didn’t tell Santa that you wanted a castle for Christmas.”
“Yes, I did, when I sat on his lap.”
Uh-oh. I forgot about that. I didn’t hear what he said, but I assumed he gave fake Santa the same list he gave real Santa. He’s three. Why would I think that?
“So tomorrow I get a castle.” He said, grinning ear to ear, and he darted away happily.
This was not just about a gift; this was about his belief in Santa. If Santa didn’t deliver tomorrow, my son would lose faith in him. Christmas magic officially ended during toddlerhood.
So off I went. Me – the person who is finished Christmas shopping by Halloween, and has her gifts wrapped by Thanksgiving – rushed off to Toys R Us on Christmas Eve, frantically searched for a castle, stood in line for hours with all of the last minute shoppers, and stayed up all night to assemble the castle. Problem solved, son happy, Christmas magic extended indefinitely.
So perhaps our current-day dilemma is my fault. It’s my fault for trying so hard to give him a happy childhood. It’s my fault for trying to make his birthday and Christmas dreams come true. It’s my fault for making him think that the world revolves around him, just because my world does.
I did those same types of things for my daughter – during her childhood, I went above and beyond to try to make her happy. But my daughter had a devastating disease that made her grow up too fast mentally but stagnate physically. She has suffered more than most adults three times her age, so she has faced disappointment, loss, and pain. She has struggled through many years of her life not being the way she wished it was.
My son, for the most part, has been lucky. My divorce was hard on him, and he recently suffered a back injury that sidelined him for soccer season, but apart from those two incidents, things have mostly gone his way. He is a good looking, intelligent star athlete, so perhaps he has a skewed perception of the world. Perhaps he has not had sufficient experience in dealing with disappointment, and perhaps that’s my fault.
My question is this: how do we, as parents, teach our children the life lessons that are only learned through struggle? Assuming that we are good parents, how are our children supposed to learn these things? It’s our job to protect them, provide for them, and try to make them happy and give them good lives. But there are important lessons to be learned from not getting what you want, and from not being treated the way that you deserve. How do we teach our children to appreciate food without letting them go hungry? How do we teach them to appreciate good parents without showing them what it’s like to have bad parents? How do we show them how lucky they are to get a good education without robbing them of the chance to get a good education?
I have always wanted my kids to be happy, and I have always wanted to be a great mom. So I worked hard to make my children’s birthdays and holidays perfect. I made huge Easter baskets and hid eggs all over the house filled with their favorite candies. I hosted birthday parties themed with their favorite characters and populated with their favorite people and ordered their favorite cakes. I stuffed their stockings with thoughtful trinkets, and I made sure that what was under the Christmas tree was what they asked for. I thought that was being a good parent, but perhaps I have done them a disservice. Perhaps I have set them up for a life of disillusionment when they grow up and move out, and the rest of the world doesn’t cater to their every whim.
Perhaps after I asked them what they wanted for breakfast, I should have made the opposite, or made nothing and told them to get it themselves. Perhaps I should have let them go without a thing or two that they asked for, or decorated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they requested Thomas the Tank Engine. I don’t know. What I do know is: I did what I thought was best at the time, I did it out of love, and I don’t think that I’m alone here.
Do any of us intentionally disappoint our children with the goal of teaching them valuable lessons? I doubt it. We look at their adorable little faces, and we want to make them smile. But life is hard, and although my son may have seen me suffer on many occasions, he hasn’t had to suffer much himself, so perhaps he’s not prepared for it. Perhaps I should have tried harder, or in this case, much less hard. But parenting doesn’t come with an instruction book, and if you look for one, you’ll find many conflicting opinions. Cosleeping is good; cosleeping is bad. You should breastfeed; you should bottle feed. You should send them to kindergarten for a whole day; a half day of kindergarten is all that they can manage. You should be a working mother; you should be a stay-at-home mother. No matter what you do, some people will agree with it and some people won’t, because the truth is, none of us parents really know what we’re doing. We’re learning on the job, but when your job is twenty-four hours a day seven days a week, with little recognition, zero pay and no training, you’re bound to screw it up once in a while.
So my son isn’t perfect, and neither am I, but I’m going to celebrate what we do right, forgive the wrong, and try to do better tomorrow. The older I get, the more that becomes my mantra in every area of my life: I’m not perfect, but I’ll try to do better tomorrow.
I think that’s the most realistic expectation that any of us can have.
Do you fear that your children have unrealistic expectations? How do you prepare them to deal with disappointment?