Disappointment: Dodge it or Deal with it?
It’s easy for parents to feel that to be a good parent they must fulfill their child’s every want and desire. At its extreme, they feel that their child’s happiness is the chief goal of parenting and that any disappointing experiences 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. They are equally driven to protect their child from all disappointment in life, keeping a smile on his face at all costs. Once begun, however, it is difficult to turn this train around since any effort to do otherwise is met with protest, frustration and even panic from the child, who rarely experiences disappointment and denial, and who is rarely required to submit to his parent’s leadership.
A “disappointment dodging” approach 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 that 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 help his day to go more smoothly. He is not concerned for the child’s overall character development or well-being. His main pursuit is good behavior for the moment without regard for the negative 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 abandons that which is best for the child and instead gives in to his demands for 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.
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.
Example: Eight-year-old Sally is ending her soccer season and it is awards day. Her best friend gets the MVP award for her outstanding performance that season. Sally is in tears as her family drives home, complaining that she deserved the award more than her friend. Rather than tell Sally the truth about her subpar performance, her parents side with her, criticize the coach, and drive to the local sporting goods store to buy her a trophy that is even bigger than her friend’s. Sadly, Sally is led to believe that she is a star player who needs no further improvement. Sally’s parents are creating a narcissist and are setting her up for disheartened failure later in life.
Dealing with It
So, you might ask, what is the problem with sheltering our children from disappointment? The answer: It is not reality. Your child will experience disappointment sooner or later in life. Learning how to properly handle setbacks early in life will largely define future successes. The longer this experience is delayed, the more difficult it will be for your child to recover from disappointments.
Disappointments occur early in a child’s life, even in the first year. They may include halting a feeding to burp, changing a diaper, being held down for a vaccine, sitting in a car seat, being placed in a crib for naptime, or coming in from outside play. In each of these settings the child will cry in protest, but if the parent resists the urge to give in, the child learns valuable lessons. Allowing disappointment or occasional failure teaches children many character lessons, such as:
- Teaches a protesting child early in life to submit to his parent’s lead.
- Teaches that protesting his parent’s decision does not change the directive.
- Teaches a protesting child that he can trust his parents with the outcome.
- Occasionally denying a child a toy or desired gift (that you could easily afford to give) teaches appreciation for what he has and even greater appreciation for that item when 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.
- Allowing occasional failures or defeats, teaches resilience and endurance.
Example: In sleep training, six-month-old Jack is placed in his crib at naptimes wide awake to fall asleep on his own. Initially, he cries in protest (not in pain, just disappointed) for about 10 minutes before falling asleep. After two days of this, Jack realizes that he really is sleepy at these naptimes, fusses for a minute or two, and then crashes into a deep, peaceful sleep. Both Jack and his parent benefit from this tolerance of disappointment.
Example: Ten-year-old Ricky wants a new bicycle for his birthday, even though his old one works fine and is only two years old. His best friend gets a new bike every two years. Ricky’s birthday rolls around and . . . no new bike. His parents explain that his bike is in good shape and there is no need for a new one. Ricky, in turn, learns to keep his bike polished and maintained, and learns the value of contentment. His friend, on the other hand, is constantly wanting (and getting) accessories for his new bike and yet leaves it outside in the rain. He never seems content with his possessions.