Monday, June 25, 2012

Dealing With Disappointments

 Sometimes, in this world, life is going to let you down. Disappointments will arise and 'fair'?... well, 'fair' is so subjective that this is why it's necessary to have judges, be they parents, teachers or Your Honor down at the courthouse.


Sometimes, I stumble across an article which resonates so well that I need to share it. So if you want to, take a moment to read Stacy Snyder's excellent piece on why, when we parents insist on 'fair', we actually aren't doing our kids any favors.

This post caught my eye at a good time. We had just returned from a well-intentioned camping trip.   On Friday, after a week of preparation on my part, we had loaded up the car to within an inch of its life and made our way out to meet up with my family.  While the forecast had been lousy, the rain was on hiatus when we arrived.  Our night had been a good one; we'd played games, had a great meal and enjoyed each others company gathered around the fire, under the tarps. By the time we'd gone to bed, however, it had begun to fall in earnest.


Two in the morning brought a real dose of reality: the tent was getting wet.


Nearly eighteen hours after we had arrived, we were hugging our dear ones goodbye and heading back down to Astoria for a hot lunch before we hit the road for home. The trip wasn't at total wash-- not at all. We had a nice walk on the beach Saturday morning before it rained; I had some sweet time with one of my nephews.  I'd had a few fleeting moments with people I loved and knew that this was what I needed to focus on. 


Kiddo, however, was sad to have to go home so soon. Both Joe and I realized how much Kiddo had looked forward to this trip and felt bad for him because we had to cut the trip short. We discussed it over his head, spelltalking: "Maybe we could go to the a-r-c-a-d-e tomorrow?" Certainly, that would help him to feel better about the whole thing.


On the way home, Kiddo fell asleep and we began talking about disappointment and children. "It's good for kids to learn how to live with disappointment" Joe stated. I agreed wholeheartedly.Learning to live with being let down by life is tough, but it's also what toughens us up. Once you get past the hurt of not getting what you want, most of us are usually able to move toward the other available options. Try again. Prepare differently. (We are getting a new tent, by the way.) Reassess what's happened and learn from the lesson. Know better so you can do better.


As we talked, though, I mentioned that perhaps our idea of taking Kiddo to the arcade should be reexamined. "If we are acting like he 'deserved' to go to the arcade because of bad weather--which we have no control over--then we're kind of playing into this whole 'gotta make it all better' thing, right?" We decided then that we wouldn't mention the arcade until we'd really decided to go, and that would depend on how the following day went. We wanted the nickel arcade to be something we were doing for fun for our family, and not because we owed him a fix for the sogged-out camping trip, and so when we did go the next day, the disappointment from the previous day wasn't even mentioned. 

And amazingly, Kiddo hasn't complained any further about his disappointment regarding camping. By not trying to fix it for him, it helped him to move on. 


After having read Synder's article, I also wondered about how our parenting world of "fair" ends up playing out over the long term. She cites learning valuable lessons by not being included 'just because', and this is something I see many parents struggling with.  At preschool, it's my job to make sure the kids are being inclusive-- but it's also my job to point out to a child that being included comes with some common agreements. One of which is that if you are feeling left out because you are playing Puppy while everyone else is playing Pirates, guess what? It's not their job to take the puppy in. Either play what they are playing, or go find other friends who want to play Puppy. You don't get to have it both ways. Imagine how  unprepared for life that child would be, if everyone smoothed the way for him and made others include him in their group and on that individual's terms? Would I be teaching that child anything of value by allowing their desire to be included to supersede the other children's original plan...all because I didn't want the child to feel left out or disappointed? 


Does anyone truly gain from this?


This also leads me to consider the social pressure on parents to be inclusive even when it runs counter to the health or well-being of the group as a whole. In these days of mom's  groups and playdates, parents have to contemplate very thoughtfully  something our own parents likely never had to even bat an eye at: namely, the pressure to include a child who is likely targeting or harming other children purposefully. There's a lot of happy, "we're all in this together" sort of kumbaya chat that goes on in these groups and we all want to support each other as parents. But when do we say "enough is enough"? How many times do our own children have to get hurt before we decide that Little Timmy's self-esteem should not take precedence over the welfare and happiness of the group as a whole? In the not-so-Politically Correct past, the kid who was walloping another child would have been marched home and their parents would have gotten an earful. Now, we worry about how our friends will feel if we mention to them that their child is being physically hurtful or deliberately mean to other kids. 


What's worse, to me, is that children who exhibit violent behavior at school somehow also take precedence over the very real need for safety. Kids have a harder time learning in an atmostphere that is unpredictable; a good teacher manages their classroom by keeping the peace with authority and this allows the students to better focus on the tasks before them. Mainstreaming children with known and documented behavioral issues is supposedly for the good of that child, but I wonder-- if a child cannot be safe in the classroom, aren't we putting their needs first in a very unhealthy way? A teacher friend of mine recently told me that when her district went on strike and renegotiated their contract, "we finally got a budget for defensive gear for the teachers".  This teacher, like many, has had to clear her classroom because of violent children acting out, losing control, destroying expensive school property and harming other children. I am not advocating for schools to isolate children, but we must figure out some sort of middle ground between exclusion and inclusion at any price.


Sometimes, there is some old-school logic that works. When you can't play nice, you don't get to play. Like Snyder's article pointed out, just showing up is important to some degree, but really-- just showing up shouldn't merit anything other than a 'tick' in the attendance book. It doesn't make you special or more deserving, it doesn't guarantee anyone anything, other than being there in that moment. What we choose to make of that moment is up to us. Something kids need--vitally need-- to know that their golden presence doesn't make them any more special or worthy than anyone else around. It's what we do while we are within the group that matters. How we treat people, if we work and make an effort to study our lessons or practice the skills necessary to do what we desire, and if we really, truly have the talent and work ethic to shine in those pursuits-- all of this is important. Some things in life are hard.  I do believe that young children should be working toward personal bests a lot of the time, and frankly, I don't know if schools need to reward kids left, right and sideways with feel-good certificates and awards for their personalities instead of what's actually been achieved. While I don't know that competition within the classroom offers better motivation for learning than collaboration, I do feel that we have to stop putting our concern for our child's self-esteem before our concern for their development as a whole person. 

I want my son to grow into an adult who is capable of dealing with setbacks, to have the fortitude necessary to continue to go forward, albeit in a new way or different direction, and not just give up and decide that the world is a mean place and that it's someone else's fault that he feels badly. Looking back on my own adult life, I can see that some of my most challenging times were brought on by my own actions (or inaction) and choices: who I chose to have as friends or lovers; jobs I chose to take or quit; decisions I made that I have to take the responsibility for. People who don't learn this find the world a constantly hurtful and disappointing place.  These adults will eventually have to learn--in adulthood-- that life doesn't, in fact, revolve around them, or they will remain stuck. I have seen adults like this who suffer, and who make their children suffer, because they are so convinced that everyone else is the problem that they refuse to see their own power in their lives to change things. This attitude destroys their relationships; marriages and deep friendships cannot hold up under such one-sided demand. Their careers crumble or they find themselves unemployed because they cannot accept that they are the ones who must change. 

This is why I am so concerned for this generation of kids. Recently,  I read a question on a parenting forum that seemed very reasonable: a mother wanted to know what to do about her pre-adolescent child's desire to be famous, which she felt was pretty unrealistic and unlikely. To my surprise, many posters jumped on the mother, asking her why she would want to burst her child's bubble at such a young age. "Let her have her dreams" was the chorus of their advice. At what price, though? What if there is something that child is better suited for, something they would excel at and be very happy with? We can say "that's nice, dear" to our children's idyllic wants without feeding into the idea that we must build them up at every turn and at all costs. When we let them deal with the growing pains of life and some of the hard--and wonderful--realities, we help our kids to become more resilient in the long run. They will be better able to navigate their world as adults and more ready to be good parents as well. Disappointment is hard-- but going nowhere in life because real life itself is hard--well, that's even worse.

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