The Many Uses of Disappointment

tantrum #500

tantrum #500 (Photo credit: demandaj)

I try to disappoint Maya every day. It’s really not hard to disappoint a 2-year-old, as she frequently loses it over the fact her bunny isn’t properly seated in its tiny stroller. (Those straps are so confusing!)

But many times, even in ways that I could satisfy her fleeting desire to have a cracker or play with the green crayon, I try to make her wait a bit, so long as I am genuinely busy doing something more useful to me.

I usually acknowledge that I did hear what she has asked for, so she knows her attempt at communicating was effective. But I’ll often ask for time to respond, and tell her no if it’s not a good time for her bizarre request.

Any parent of a toddler obviously says “NO” a lot — most often when their beloved fount of mischief gets their busy little hands up into all of the many things they shouldn’t. (“Not the wall! Please, the paper, not the wall!”)

That kind of instant “no” may be a learning moment, but it’s also a mandatory kind of denial. It’s essential to keeping our child (or walls!) safe and largely in one piece.

But calmly saying no to the stream of “wannas” issuing forth from a child — “No, you may not have a cracker, because we’re going to eat dinner soon” or “No, I can’t play the most annoying children’s song in the world again right now because my brain will liquefy and run out of my ears” — is a very different form of no. It is a more deliberate, even anti-democratic, moment in parenting.

It’s often hard to deny a child what’s gettable, or easy to get with a small stretch of our intentions. After all, we dream of our baby getting whatever it is she wants out of life, and as parents, it’s equally easy to imagine ourselves as the delivery devices for all of those desires. They break us all in when they are cute, needy, helpless newborns, and boy, do they train us well.

I’ve been complaining audibly about the lack of social supports for parents, but it also seems important to notice that the demands that many modern parents put on themselves are unrelenting, leading to charges of “over-parenting,” or (gasp!) “helicopter parenting.” (That last one always gives me a mental image of a mom wearing one of those multicolored beanies with heli-rotors spinning madly around her ears.)

English: Propeller beanie Français : Casquette...

Official Helicopter Mom Beanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, one recent New Yorker article, reviewing a book, compared “spoiled” American children, unfavorably of course, to Amazonian 6-year-olds, who can evidently catch and gut their own fish. Those children are welcome in my house any time, as they could show me a thing or two about not injuring myself around sharp cutlery.

It’s true that parenting sometimes can feel like a bad on-demand experience, in which whatever moving, well-acted art-house movie you wanted to watch is nowhere to be found in the arid wasteland that is now Netflix, and the only thing left on the menu is the same mind-numbing Clifford book you already read eight times today.

While I’ll normally suck it up with good ol’ Clifford, because, well, it’s reading at least, I do wage a more-or-less deliberate daily campaign to get Maya to accept the words “not now,” “not here” and “not so much.”

These are small, unimportant ways to make her comfortable with the difference, in a practical sense, between wanting the crayon and needing the crayon.

This is a distinction both she and I will find useful. When I see children acting unpleasantly, it’s often this piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing. And if all the hype over “over-parenting” is about calling out a parenting culture that never lets a child feel upset or sad, then the critiques are right, IMHO, that parents are taking something important away from their kids.

Both learning to mediate your own desires — and that being denied something you really, really want does little actual damage — are critical skills. If I watch very closely, I can sometimes even see Maya’s relinquishment of her need following a minor disappointment– that moment of letting go — and also see her experience the comforting persistence of the self despite this small hardship.

Of course, on occasion (though actually not that often anymore) she just flips out. So, there’s that to deal with. But even as I acknowledge her frustration, I still try not to give in on whatever point’s at issue. Why? Because I’m the mom, that’s why.

Often, if not always, the up-side of dealing with disappointment is self-reliance. Just today, Maya put it together how to ask that “mommy” get the bunny from the other room. My opinion happened to be that “Maya” should go get the bunny, since “Maya” wanted it. She went and got the bunny. I tried not to visibly gloat.

Just in case you think I’m merely being mean, there’s a bunch of science that shows that doing things for children that they should do for themselves — and praising them for merely being, instead of for trying hard at some task — actually undermines their self-esteem.

I remember how shocked I was during law school when a very successful fellow student — someone I’d always admired for their incredible drive — told me that he would feel utterly lost, and “wonder who he was” if he didn’t get that most-coveted of prizes, a Supreme Court clerkship. He didn’t get it, and although I have no idea whether the things are connected at all, I also gather he’s no longer working as a lawyer. It was sad to me at the time to see how brittle his self-concept was, and how all of his many achievements meant nothing if he couldn’t have this particular golden ring.

A focus on achievement uber alles leads to such pointless suffering. A focus on adaptability, on the other hand, should, if done right, produce more supple and likable people at the end, with a few more tantrums weathered along the way.

So there you have it, my friends. My oh-so-sage parenting advice from all 2 years of my experience thus far boils down to: Disappoint your child. Early and often.

In fact, look for openings to do it, since you’ll still spend far more of your day waiting on them hand and foot.


Clifford (Photo credit: OneTigerFan)


I found the following sources interesting on these and related points:

How do you think parents should respond to the debate about “over-parenting”? Is it media punditry or fact?

Are American parents over-protective or overly permissive or (could it be?) both — perhaps alternating these flaws in a self-defeating cycle just because we can never get it right?

Most importantly, how many times have you read Clifford in a row? I need some company in my misery!

2 thoughts on “The Many Uses of Disappointment

  1. Funny to read this after we *just* conquered another tantrum. Today’s was over potato chips. You can have some, but they can’t be the only thing you eat for lunch. You would have thought I’d taken away his blanket for all If that racket. Sigh. It’s difficult, but you’re right, a little disappointment every day is a good thing.

    • Hi Cheryl! The food ones are the worst. Maya’s
      obsessed with biscuits, and wants to eat the
      basically in lieu of every meal. Sigh. I
      just think– I’m not allowing her to subsist on junk, and building character to boot! Hah.


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