The Heartbreak Kid

Your kid’s sad. That’s okay

Like most parents, I share a basic instinct—to shield my children from danger, and the elements in the world they can’t quite handle on their own. For instance, at ages six and seven, my sons are not yet allowed to drive the car. They drink apple juice with dinner instead of whiskey. I’m strict like that.

These things—driving and whiskey—are not bad things. On the contrary, they’re nice things I hope my kids will eventually experience, along with other adult treats, like backpacking through Slovakia, and colorful profanity. Such experiences will come when my boys are ready. When it’s time.

That, to me, is the key. Time.

But I don’t always agree with other parents about what constitutes “danger,” and lately, I see people trying to protect their kids in another way—from sadness. As though sadness—like whiskey—is something for later on.

This confuses me. In the happiest life, there is sadness. Babies cry because they’re cold or hungry, because they have been—however momentarily—abandoned. Toddlers cry because they can’t find the words to express their emotions, or because they want a muffin NOW. First graders cry because they get picked last for kickball, or because their best friend doesn’t like them anymore. It’s heartbreaking to watch our kids experience these emotions, but learning to navigate and manage them is part of growing up.

Recently, a friend of mine secretly replaced a dead goldfish with an identical pet, so that her kid wouldn’t have to experience loss. “She’s so sensitive,” my friend said. “I don’t know if she can handle it.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was hardly my business, but isn’t a dead goldfish the perfect way for a kid to learn about loss? Isn’t that almost a cliché? And what does it say about our level of privilege that we have this option, to protect our kids like that? Does a mother in a refugee camp hunt down a goldfish, to keep her child from experiencing loss?

But okay, let’s say that we—in our 21st-century cocoon of antibiotics and foreign wars—are able to shield our kids from certain kinds of sadness. We turn off NPR when the kids are in the car. We send our dogs off to live on imaginary farms when they get decrepit. How then will our children manage loss when it finds them?

When I was a little girl, I was in love with an old yellow book of fairytales called The Princesses, and especially a heartbreaking Oscar Wilde story called “The Birthday of the Infanta,” which ended like this:

‘Mi bella Princesa, your funny little dwarf will never dance again. It is a pity, for he is so ugly that he might have made the King smile.’

‘But why will he not dance again?’ asked the Infanta, laughing.

‘Because his heart is broken,’ answered the Chamberlain.

And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. ‘For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ she cried, and she ran out into the garden.

It was brutal, and I adored it. I read the story over and over, making myself cry. And while I know most kids aren’t Wilde fans these days, it seems so important to me that they have books like that. Beautiful books that break their hearts.

I was a selfish kid, an older sister, bossy. I wasn’t just weeping because the story was sad. I was weeping because I knew I was a little like the Infanta myself, and I didn’t want to be. That story taught me something important about empathy, and fault. It taught me that life can be tragic. In some ways, this was a big exotic idea for me, and in other ways, it mirrored something I’d already figured out—that life was going to be hard sometimes, and painful. Reading the book, I felt less alone with my own sadness.

I can’t help wondering if people let their kids read books like that today. Old Yeller? The Diary of Anne Frank? I know parents now monitor what their kids read very closely. I see reviews that criticize books for being too “grim.” Is tragedy something we’ve set aside now, along with our dead goldfish?

Of course, I loved happy stories too as a kid, and I read lots of them. I read everything! But all stories can’t be happy ones. Because there’s a big difference between a book through which a reader learns to sit with sadness, and a book where the sadness vanishes just in the nick of time. The villain leaves town. The bully changes heart. These are fantasies.

In real life, the bully rarely wakes up a changed person and picks your kid first for kickball.

Happy endings, replacement pets. I can’t help wondering if maybe kids today are becoming extra sensitive because we aren’t letting them learn about sadness, and really process it. Is it possible they need tragedies, once in awhile, the way they might need to know about the goldfish?

I think about kids I know who burst into tears when their pink tights are dirty or the cookies have icky raisins in them, and I wonder—is that tragedy today? And how does it end? What happens when a sensitive kid who’s never lost a goldfish or read a sad book turns into an adult? Is there a magical age, I wonder, when she becomes less sensitive? Shifts over from childhood to adulthood? She turns 16 and gets a car. She turns 21 and hurrah—whiskey!

At what age does she suddenly know how to be sad?

Laurel Snyder’s last sad book was Bigger than a Bread Box. Her next sad book is Seven Stories Up.