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!

Talking to Toddlers: A Eureka Moment

Redheaded child mesmerized.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In a more-or-less crash course on how to deal with a near-two-year-old, I’ve flipped through a significant number of parenting books full of perky, preachy “dos and don’ts” on talking to toddlers. They typically include tips on how to distract toddlers from a sudden obsession by introducing a different new toy, how to be soothing when an injury occurs (“You’re ok“), or how to structure daily routines in the hopes of minimizing conflict.

And yet I had a gnawing sensation that few of my responses to our daily situations were landing right with Maya. Indeed, it seemed her very set-up, which is all about testing boundaries, was to push relentlessly on all of the serious limitations of this paltry toolbox of tricks. After all, if the corny dialogue in these books failed to hold my interest, how rich are they as a structure for a relationship between a parent and child?

On the other hand, when I actually sat down and read some of the latest fascinating explorations of the infant mind, such as Alison Gopnik‘s The Philosophical Baby, it became clear that, with the research that has become available in only the past decade or so, we now know a lot more about the inner lives of pre-verbal toddlers. We know, for example, that even very young infants connect cause and effect, have rich emotional and imaginative lives, and are more like people in miniature than we guess — meaning that the mix of inauthenticity, expectations for performative little moments (“come give mommy a hug”) and condescension we show them much of the time must grate a little, to say the least.

So imagine my delight when the director of Maya’s new preschool sent around an article about a philosophy of infant and child interaction called Resources in Educare, or RIE, which precisely addressed some of the missing pieces of this puzzle.

RIE, as a school of thought, was popularized in the U.S. by Magda Gerber, an author and teacher who brought a distinct philosophical approach to interactions with infants. One RIE disciple, Janet Lansbury, has a blog called Elevating Child Care that includes many interesting posts that I have since found helpful for dealing with older children.

I’m currently reading Gerber’s book, Your Self-Confident Baby, and while, predictably, I don’t agree with everything in it, there’s a lot to like as well. I’ll be posting a fuller review when I’m finished.

But I don’t want to wait, because right away, I have found her and Lansbury’s analysis of toddler psychology to be revealing and incredibly useful in my conversations with Maya. My instant take-aways to her writing and Lansbury’s thoughtful posts thus far include the following:

  1. It’s preferable to be authentic than falsely cheerful in that “toddler tone.”
  2. Distracting a child who is focused on a task, even a frustrating or inappropriate one, may encourage a lack of sustained attention.
  3. You can usefully (and thankfully!) drop the urge to entertain and allow child-directed play instead. (Given the literature on the importance of relationship-building and engagement, I sometimes feel Gerber takes the “do not teach” imperative a bit too far, but I get her point: parents, including me, play “the expert” all too much and fail to let children just learn for themselves.)
  4. Resist the impulse to always correct a toddler’s verbal mistakes — language acquisition is hard enough without fear of being caught in a mistake!
  5. Don’t say “you’re ok” impulsively whenever there is an injury or perceive hurt — it’s minimizing and mostly serves the interests of the parent, who needs the child to be ok. Instead, ask, “what happened?” first, which is far more respectful, and may actually give you information you may need.
  6. Call out the intention of the child in a conflict and set boundaries clearly instead of just saying “no” loudly and repeatedly, which is the “technique” we had been trying. LOL. (Most exciting is that this actually works, mostly, as you’ll see below — Eureka!)

The overall point is that parents unwittingly and with all good intentions over-ride and blot out children’s own particular intentions, emotions, and useful frustrations in an attempt to make behavior more manageable, acceptable and pleasant. Yet these confrontations with the facts of the world are incredible learning moments.

While we must not ignore the social expectations others will have for toddlers, and we should communicate clearly about boundaries, we also don’t have to let them know “the rules” in a way that dishonors or denies their feelings or motivations.

Cockily, I thought that we were doing pretty well by allowing Maya child-directed play as her main activity, and that we were respectful in our dealings with her. But when I had this “aha” moment, I was actually shocked to reflect upon how much of my dialogue with Maya still revolved around an attempt to conform her behavior through manipulation, often against her obstinate will to do some other thing instead.

In these tiny but powerful struggles, I would tell her “no” to something and witness the internal battle that raged within her, as she struggled to alter her desires to match mine. Mostly, of course, that struggle placed my request for compliance firmly on the losing side. And then had to be reinforced again, more loudly. You can see why this “strategy” was destined for failure.

But the other night, at the pool, with RIE in my pocket, things were different. The stage for an epic battle was set when Maya wandered 10 or so feet away from me close to some large steps leading up a hill, and I was still in the water. It was the ultimate test — could I control her with my voice alone?

I summoned my calmest, most determined voice, and tried the RIE approach, saying clearly, “Maya, I can see you want to go up the stairs [naming her intention]. But you may not go up the stairs because I am still in the pool, and you may not go up the stairs without me. That is the rule. [naming the rule and reason]. Please walk back to me.”

A woman was standing nearby, and I would swear that when these words came out of my mouth she looked over at Maya and shook her head, ever so slightly. Yeah, right, lady, I could almost see her thinking, that’ll work.

But here’s the thing that truly shocked me: it did!

Maya gave out an involuntary little squeal like a angry pterodactyl, balled and unballed her fists, then turned and walked back to me. By the time she got back, she was actually smiling. (I may have, though I can’t really be sure, shot the lady a brief, smug look as Maya was heading back my way.)

I’ve since tried this approach at other times, and I would have to say that even when it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s still far better than the former tactic of escalating “no’s” or even, threatened consequences, Supernanny style. It feels more respectful, recognizes Maya’s intentions and desires, and forces me to articulate our roles and whatever principle may be stake. As a geek and lawyer, I can’t help but think of it as basic due process for children.

As this implies, when Maya is fully verbal, I may need new tools to avoid her lawyering everything to death. But for now, I would say, I’ve finally stumbled across a set of working guidelines that serve our family interactions far better than our former muddling-through.

I hope these few insights are useful to you as well, and I would encourage anyone working through similar issues to check out RIE and Lansbury’s site. If you have techniques you like, please do share as well.