Kids & Disappointment: Can Disappointment Help Them?
“They said ‘no,’ huh? It didn’t work out. So what’s next?” I was looking forward to hearing those words from my father; words that I’ve definitely heard many times before as a kid. This was his answer any time I didn’t get what I wanted from a situation. This last conversation with these words happened just a few months ago when he came over for coffee one Sunday morning. I updated him on my latest news that I didn’t land the job that I had I set my sights on. Even though I anxiously waited months to hear a reply, and even though I felt humiliated and frustrated that I didn’t get it, the words put my situation into perspective and made everything about my news feel a lot less enormous. When my father left my house that morning I was starting to feel like I could move on with my life. His reply signaled my brain to process the situation like this: They said no and that’s the end of it. It’s time to stop obsessing. What a relief for an overthinker like me. For me, this kind of reaction, or maybe it’s more precise to call it a non- reaction, always frames my disappointment in a healthy way by pivoting the situation from borderline tragic to surmountable. In short, it lessens my disappointment and makes me resilient.
It gets me thinking about how I don’t hear many parents, myself included, react to their children’s disappointment like this. What if every time our kids came to us with their disappointments, we said, “Oh well, it is what it is. What’s next?” How would our kids’ react and frame their situations? As a middle school and high school teacher, I don’t always hear parents accept their kids’ disappointment. I get it, trust me. The desire and worry to raise happy children is everything. I haven’t been able to give this reply to my kids. I’m hoping that in the future I can belt out a reply like this if necessary, but as of now, I overthink, strategize and try to solve any disappointment that disrupts their young lives. And because of that, I haven’t always helped them. I should know better because I’ve seen what can happen if we eliminate all disappointment from our kids’ lives.
For several years, I was my school’s English Department Chair which meant that one of my responsibilities was to place students in honors or AP level classes. After the students took a test that would assess their qualifications for these higher level classes, I braced myself for the onslaught of calls, emails, and conversations between parents and me. I could write the script for how these discussions would go even before talking to a parent. They were always the same: my kid works hard; they really want to go into a higher level class; the qualifying test wasn’t fair; they enjoy reading so why not put them in the class they want ? My typical response: their test scores and yearly performance don’t reflect the requirements of the higher level courses so we would best serve your child by placing them in a standard level class. But what if parents said to their kids, “Ok you’re placed in a non-honors course, what’s next?” Think of the pressure that is unloaded for that student who’s best suited for a non-honors class. How healthy for that kid to accept their appropriate class and move on to other things that can fulfill them.
One year, I gave a student named *Audrey a B for the year. A few days after I entered grades into the school’s reporting system, summer time was in full swing. I was absorbed with my 8 month old daughter when I checked my school email and found three messages from Audrey’s mom saying that it’s urgent I call her. I put my daughter to bed early that night so I could give this mother my undivided attention, thinking that her situation was dire. I immediately regretted the call when I realized it was about Audrey’s class placement. I will paraphrase the conversation: I needed to place Audrey in an honors English class because it’s what her daughter wanted. Audrey was so disappointed to discover that she didn’t qualify. So it was the same message that I predicted many times before. In the end, my school’s Administration had Audrey’s parents sign a document stating that she could take the honors level class despite the school’s recommendation. Audrey was placed where she wanted to be and resolved her disappointment.
But the problem didn’t go away for anyone. Audrey was disappointed every year thereafter that she wasn’t placed in an honors or advanced English class. And every year her mother went to bat for her to be moved into them. Her mom always won her class placement campaigns, so Audrey was placed in her desired classes throughout high school. You might be thinking that Audrey’s problem was solved each year, but by her senior year, she was so anxiety-ridden from the pressure of these challenging courses that her mother was calling our Administration monthly, describing how stretched her daughter felt and how lost and intimidated she felt in her classes. She claimed that Audrey’s teachers didn’t “get” her kid, and that made her child miserable in class. As a teacher, I think her mom should have let Audrey ride out her disappointment that summer after her freshman year, but as a parent, I think I want to “help” our kids navigate life.
Just yesterday I walked my kids along a rocky trail that leads to a pretty field and playground. We were not familiar with this trail so I told my 9 and 3 year old to look closely at the rocks and only climb on ones that weren’t too big or dangerous for them. Basically, they could only climb on ones that didn’t require my help. Many times during the walk, my 3 year old was frustrated and disappointed that he couldn’t climb the biggest rocks that came his way, that he had to stick to smaller ones. I resisted the urge to help him because I knew that holding him up on every rock he liked would shorten our time at the playground, which I knew he would love. We made it to the playground quickly and he was happy he “found” it. Later, he even proudly told his dad that he climbed rocks all by himself and found the playground all by himself. This had me thinking: if we help kids sprint from one inappropriate rock to another, there’s a good chance that they may not feel authentic success or reap the benefits of endurance. Their ultimate happiness, not their instant gratification, should guide our actions when we advocate for our kids. Perhaps the best thing to do is allow kids to sometimes feel disappointment so they can develop resilience, grit, and self -worth, -life-long traits that no amount of disappointment can erase.
*The name Audrey is purely fictional.