Handling Disappointments

My son was thrilled to get his first camera. He had successfully taken a great picture of his family, and now wanted one of his cat. The cat, however, was nowhere to be found. I said I was sorry the cat wasn't around, and was sure he would turn up sooner or later, at which point the picture could be taken. This sounded pretty reasonable to me, but did not resolve the situation. My son was totally engrossed with the camera, and could think of nothing else but the picture of the cat, and how deeply disappointing it was not to have it.

Seeing the depths of his disappointment, and how long it lasted, did I become more sympathetic? Absolutely not. The more he showed it, the angrier I got.

Now, this was not a life and death matter (though it may have felt like it to him). I knew that he would survive the afternoon without a picture of his cat. The apparent pettiness of it all may have contributed to my lack of patience. But it also helped me to notice the dynamics and think once more about how we handle our children's disappointments.

I think the key to my anger was my helplessness, my inability to make the situation better. Of course he was excited about the camera. Of course he wanted a picture of his beloved pet. Although someone who was older might have had more perspective on waiting, it was still a perfectly reasonable thing to want, and one that I would be happy to give him. Except that I couldn't. The reasonableness of his wish, combined with my powerlessness to grant it and his open disappointment, made for a potent brew of parental feelings.

It's hard on us in general to not be able to give our children all the good things they want and deserve. There's probably nothing we care about more in our lives. Not being able to do that for them is hard enough. Having them call our attention to it, rub our noses in the pain of it--can put us over the edge. Surely they must know how badly we feel about it already? Why can't they have a little consideration? If they must feel disappointed, at least they could refrain from shoving it in our faces.

Most children learn to do this sooner or later--and a lot sooner if their parents have no space to listen to how they feel. In a way, I'm setting myself up for this situation by giving the children the message that whatever they feel is legitimate. It's harder for me. Now I have their feelings in my face as well as my own. But, when I have any perspective, I know this is what I want. The messiness of impatience with the status quo, great hopes and disappointments, passions and grief, looks so much richer than the convenient, but sterile-looking territory of lowering hopes, waiting, and settling for what's being handed out.

I didn't handle this situation particularly well. We got a few laughs when I finally let off some steam and announced that anyone who mentioned the words "camera" or "cat" or had anything other than a completely pleased look on their faces would get wrestled to the ground. Both children always rise to a challenge like that, and wrestling always helps. But the one who really saved the day was the cat. He came back.