Expectations and Disappointment

I'd heard of it, but I'd never thought I'd be in the situation: trying to piece a broken banana together with toothpicks for a bitterly crying child. How, I wondered, could he possibly have such intense feelings about a banana? Most of us as adults (the relatively "well-adjusted" in any case) have figured out how to avoid feeling disappointed so much. If you don't expect much out of a given situation, then you're not likely to be too badly let down. (What this does to the quality of our lives is another topic ...) It takes a while to adopt this outlook on life, however, and many children's expectations are still way up there: they know what they want--and they think they have a right to get it.

This can be doubly hard for us. First we see our children expecting in a way that we gave up on long ago. "What right do you have making such a big fuss about such little things when I've had to quietly give up so much?" And it really hurts when what they're going for is something that we've secretly never stopped wanting--like individual attention. Second, we often can't give our children what they want, even if we'd love to with all our hearts. We don't have the money, the time, the resources, the emotional support ourselves. Feeling bad about the giving up that we had to do, and about what we can't give our children, it's not surprising that we have a hard time listening to their wants and disappointments. Who's listening to us?

As I notice what goes on for me in the face of my children's disappointments, I can think more clearly about them. In the process, I've come across three promising angles. First, I've started encouraging the children to be clear about what they want, even if they aren't going to get it right now. I'd rather have them keep their expectations of life high and grieve over the disappointments than settle their sights lower and lower and lower. It was actually very helpful to my three-year-old, who desperately wanted modeling clay like his big brother's, to have me post a big sign on the refrigerator saying ANDREW WANTS MODELING CLAY NOW! At least the situation was clear: his want was publicly acknowledged and nobody was trying to talk him out of it.

Second, I try to remember that they actually can be feeling that disappointed over that little a thing. Rather than brushing it off as insignificant or silly, or telling them they shouldn't be feeling bad, as they cry in my arms I talk about how hard it must be to not be able to have it their way and how disappointed they must feel.

Finally, I come across many occasions where getting what they say they want doesn't do the trick. The hot dog doesn't have enough ketchup on it, or it has too much, or it breaks, or the drink is the wrong one or in the wrong cup. At this point, it looks as if the hot dog isn't the issue at all. They're committed to finding something wrong with something so that they can have a context in which to feel bad. Maybe it's just the accumulation of little things from the day and the hot dog is the last straw, or maybe it's something too abstract for the child to talk about and the hot dog is a convenient symbol. So I stop trying to get it right, even though they're still protesting passionately about the hot dog, take them in my arms and tell them warmly that we're just going to stop for a while and notice that they're feeling bad about something.

After a good cry or a hard wrestle with lots of physical contact and laughter, the hot dog will almost always be completely forgotten, or discovered to be just fine in its present condition after all. They will be left clear-eyed, ready to go on to new things, and prepared, once again, to expect everything from life.