Many parents today feel that to be a Good Parent they must fulfill their child’s every desire. At its extreme, they feel that child happiness at any cost is the proper goal of parenting and that any disappointment of their child will surely damage his self esteem. They are sincerely driven by a desire to constantly indulge their child, even when it goes against their better judgment. Keeping a smile on their child’s face supersedes all other measures of success. Once begun, however, it is difficult to turn this train around, since any effort to do otherwise is met with outrage, frustration and even panic from the child, who rarely experiences disappointment, denial, or a requirement to submit to a parent’s leadership.
“Disappointment dodging” can emerge from any of the following parental perspectives.
- Parental Uncertainty: This parent has typically given little study to the ideal goals of parenting and therefore is operating from the assumption making the child “happy” is paramount to correction or guidance. Since denying the child his impulsive desires may lead to disappointment, this parent has “fallen” into a sincere but misguided pattern of indulgence and permissiveness with the child. This parent truly fears that conflict or disappointment will harm the child. For instance, this parent often follows the toddler’s lead in basic areas like, sleep (bedtime is different every night), nutrition (it’s macaroni and cheese most nights because that’s all he wants), and personal hygiene (teeth are infrequently brushed because he tantrums with every attempt and bathing happens only when he wants to).
- Parental Guilt: This parent feels guilty because of various shortcomings (working too much, being divorced, disciplining too much, etc.) and therefore tries to compensate with over indulgence in other areas. This indulgence may come in the form of bending rules for behavior and postponing correction, allowing the child to set his own chaotic schedule, overindulging a child with gifts, or being overly complimentary of a child’s performance. For instance, a parent who feels she has not given her child the time he deserves may compromise on the correction of a child’s misbehavior at the end of a long day at work. Or it may be a divorced parent who excessively gives a child her every desire without discerning a child’s readiness for the gift or true need for it. She gives to satisfy his wants while overlooking his best interest.
- Parental Selfishness: This parent dodges disappointment simply to keep peace and to allow his day to go more smoothly. He is not concerned for the child’s overall character development or well-bring. His main pursuit is good behavior for the moment without regard for the negatives consequences for the child that may follow. Yes, despite what our culture tells us, denying a child his unhealthy desires and enduring the resulting protest is actually sacrificial of a parent and a real display of selflessness.
Disappointment dodging can begin early and without warning with a parent’s hesitation to insist that the child follow his directions. Knowing that insisting will result in a crying or protesting child, the parent discards the fact that his way is best for the child and instead allows him to do whatever he wants at the time. Although this may be a convenient decision for the moment, it quickly becomes a pattern where the parent is hesitant to change or re-train because the child has been misled for so long. Thinking that it is increasingly unfair to change, the parent continues to follow the unhealthy lead of the child over her better judgment. What this parent has overlooked is that embracing the conflict that comes with correcting a child at the early ages will result in more joyful and fruitful results as the child grows older.
An example: It’s time for 2-year-old Johnny’s nap, but he is contently playing with his toys and interruption is sure to ignite an eruption of displeasure. Besides, Johnny’s consuming play is allowing Mom to get some much-needed paper work done at her desk in the kitchen. So, because interrupting Johnny will lead to disappointment and distress, and since she can benefit as well, Mom decides to allow him to skip his nap today. By choosing to dodge a momentary disappointment, Mom has created a cranky toddler by late afternoon and the need to additionally compromise the usual rules of play since she now feels responsible for creating Johnny’s fatigue-driven misbehavior. After two days of the same compromise, mom decides that it is time to get back on track with these naps. So, on the third day, she insists on the nap and places Johnny in his crib at the appropriate nap time. In frustration, he mounts a red-faced protest with crying to the point of gagging and choking. Finally after 10 minutes of guilt and misery, Mom aborts all efforts to get him to sleep and returns Johnny to the floor of the den to resume play with his beloved toys, satisfying his obvious desire. She allowed his disappointment to influence her better judgment and to create a sleep-deprived toddler who will again throw more challenges her way with this apparent victory.
Another example: Six-year-old Johnny tells his parents that he wants three more cars to add to his collection of 26 Hot Wheels cars ─ a record for the neighborhood. And why shouldn’t he expect to get these for his birthday, he has always been given what he wants. His best friend, Connor, from a family of similar means, has only five cars in his collection, but he takes meticulous care of them, unlike Johnny who often leaves them in the yard and at neighbors’ homes when he visits. Being a busy family, Johnny’s parents haven’t given much thought to him careless treatment of his car collection. When one is lost or damaged, it is quickly replaced by his parents without questioning the poor responsibility he is demonstrating with the collection. Johnny’s parents have learned that the easiest way to keep Johnny happy is to give and not question why. This way everyone is happy and their busy routine continues without interruption. Unfortunately, Johnny (unlike his friend Connor) is becoming a poor steward of his possessions and is not learning the character-building value of delayed gratification.
So, you might ask, what is the problem with sheltering our children from disappointment? The answer: It is not reality. Your child will experience disappoint sooner or later in life. Learning how to properly handle early setbacks will largely define future successes. The longer this experience is delayed, the more difficult it will be for your child to recover from disappointments. Allowing appropriate experiences of disappointment early in life teaches a child character, endurance and resilience. Experiences of disappointment gives a child greater appreciation for his successes and accomplishments. Occasionally denying a child a toy or desired gift (that could be easily afforded by you) teaches appreciation for what he has and for that item if he eventually gets it. Ironically, experiencing disappointment leads to greater contentment. It has been said of contentment, “If a person is not satisfied with what he has, he will never be fully satisfied with what he wants.” Think about that for a moment.
My daughter wanted for her six-year-old birthday three more Beanie Babies to add to her collection of six. She cited with self-pity the situation of her friend in the neighborhood who had 32 beanie babies. As we talked about her getting one more instead of the overly indulgent three more, I saw an opportunity to illustrate contentment. I said to her, “Wow, Kelly must be so pleased to have 32 Beanie Babies. Surely she doesn’t need any more, does she?” Allison responded, “Yes, Dad. She wants the two newest ones.” So, I asked, “How many more do you think it will take to make Kelly completely happy with her collection?” Allison said, “I don’t know.” I responded with the suggestion, “Probably just one or two more.” She understood the point. Kelly was never going to be completely content with her collection, no matter how many she had.
Railroad mogul, John D. Rockefeller, was once asked just how much money it takes for a person to be happy. His response: “Just a little more.” You see, if you think you can make your child happier or more content by giving him more things (rather than by giving him more of yourself) you are sadly misguided. It has been said that children spelled love, “T-I-M-E.” Time with you and loving guidance is what will positively impact your child’s life more than any gift or avoidance of disappointment.