Sunday, October 31, 2010

Weekly Column: Disappointment Can Be Punishment Enough

The disaster was partly of my own making.

We’d taken the girls on a day-trip with friends to an autumnal cornerstone: the pumpkin patch and corn maze. After a day of skipped naps, much excitement, plenty of physical exertion, and a boring car ride, our daughters were frazzled to say the least.

Which is when we decided going to a restaurant for dinner would be no trouble at all.

But you know how that goes, right? Wired, tired kids plus exhausted, hungry parents equals TROUBLE.

The toddler was more interested in painting the wall with ketchup than eating, and the pre-schooler alternated bites of food between lying down in the booth. She was unusually worn out, and should have been in bed instead of eating dinner. But at least she was eating; we’d dangled the hope of ice cream before her expectant eyes all afternoon, and she was doing her darndest to eat quickly enough for the promised treat.

She soon finished her food, and a tiny bowl of ice cream was placed before her droopy eyes. A few carefully scooped bites into it, she proudly lifted her bowl to show it off to our dinner companions.

But (again) you know how that goes, right? A sleepy, fumbly 4-year-old plus a cold, slippery bowl equals SPLAT.

Her intake of breath lasted long enough to warn us of the permanent damage her cries would surely leave behind. When she finally exhaled, her scream of sadness was piercingly loud as she watched her ice cream melting into the floor. Being beyond her limits of tiredness, she was left with nothing but honest tears and wailing disappointment.

Though I’m still waiting for the day when she handles disappointment with something other than indignation and furious irrationality, I think she’s beginning to understand that we don’t always get exactly what we want. It’s just a truth of life. And yet…

There are times that I’m struck by how innocent and hopeful her heart still is, and I want to keep it that way for a little bit longer. Before she becomes jaded by negativity or mired in real-life hardship.

I want her to accept that joy can be just as likely as disappointment. Often, that takes nothing more than teaching her about bright-side-living and positive outlooks, which I try to model daily, but then there are those other times. Those times that really are just no fun, no matter how you spin it. And that’s when I sometimes break the rules to support my hopeful-hearted girl’s innocence.

Before she could open her mouth for a second scream, I’d made my decision: I’d get her a new bowl of ice cream. She’d not been unduly careless with her bowl – she’d been eating calmly. She’d waited all day for this treat, and to see it smashed on the floor was almost enough to bring me to tears.

This didn’t feel like a moment to teach a ‘That’s the breaks, kid’ lesson. Rather, this felt like a moment to show my daughter that when accidents happen, they can sometimes be made better. Life doesn’t have to consist of heaping punishment upon hardship. I have no doubt that the sadness of watching her treat fall to the floor left quite a lasting impression, anyway.

Granted, a spilled ice cream is not the worst disappointment my child will probably face. I understand there will be times when no replacement will fix her sadness.

But this time, it was solved painlessly. She finished her new ice cream carefully. Gratefully.

And my hopeful-hearted daughter remains hopeful-hearted, for a few more days.

[Online version here.]


  1. I love the ice cream story. It is so true in our own lives. Unfortunately, I have seen adults deal with disappointment in many a worse way than you little four year old. I totally agree with you here though. She did not do anything to deserve missing her treat. It was so good of you to realize that. I wish we could all be as Hopeful-hearted as your child.

  2. Good for you! It takes a wise mom to know when a moment calls for a firm 'you have to learn to deal with the consequences of your actions' or a reassuring 'it's okay, sweetheart, we can fix this'. Because sometimes, you know, it really IS good for us moms to show our children that life doesn't have to be all consequence all the time: once in awhile you can just order another bowl of ice-cream. I'm impressed!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?