Letting the kids experience life’s disappointments

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” (Frank McCourt – Angela’s Ashes)

“I would like to thank my parents in Vergaio, in a little village in Italy. They gave me the biggest gift – poverty! And I want to thank (them) for the lesson of my life.” (Roberto Benigni during his Oscar Speech for Life is Beautiful)


I believe it is quite natural for parents to want to give their kids the best possible childhood imaginable. I have friends who spend inordinate amounts of time planning the perfect birthday party, the perfect vacation, and the perfect life. I tip my hat to them and applaud their efforts and ambition. They simply want to create some magic for their kids.

I, of course, see things somewhat differently. While I understand the desire to shield and protect, my own instinct tells me that a dream-sequenced upbringing doesn’t prepare kids for life. And if my boys are anything like me, they are going to be making a lot of mistakes every step of the way. Therefore, we have no time for fairy dust or musical dance numbers when there is only a very small window to teach them how to cope with the epic ups and downs of life.

I should point out that my boys do live in a comfortable, middle-class world. They are loved and cherished. I spend my days driving them to whatever current activities I have found to improve their minds and bodies. I worry about them constantly, and I fight the urge to make them wear helmets every time they walk out the door. I would also prefer to cover them entirely in cotton balls.

Still, where some mothers experience guilt over what they are unable to provide their children (time, love, attention, or material things), I feel guilty when I sense I am giving them too much. My husband rolls his eyes when I joyfully announce to a kid that he can’t attend a friend’s birthday party because it conflicts with piano lessons. I take relish in denying requests for candy at the check-out register. I congratulate each and every team manager who refuses to hand out trophies simply for “trying.” It takes guts to leave a wake of teary-eyed Little Leaguers bemoaning a trophy-less season, particularly in today’s world of protecting the seemingly fragile child ego.

Instead of having a handy arsenal of garden-variety disappointment and frustration that once ran rampant in childhood, mothers are now left to hunt down these exposures. We must never have any child ever feel remotely sad, the Sensitivity Patrol tells us.

Because that’s practical.

Yet up until the last few generations, kids learned at a very young age that life can be hard. It was once normal for children to help support their families, and the needs of the kids typically came in dead last. The weight of hunger and homelessness often rested on very slight shoulders.

While I am not ready to ship my kids off to a work camp just yet, the lessons of history are clear. Kids are resilient. They are tougher than they look. And they need experience in dealing with loss and disappointment. Wrapping them in a fantasy life may feel good in the moment, but I worry that it might do more harm than good.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe in fairy tales. If I did, I’d still be a size 8 and my stomach wouldn’t dangle between my knees. Yet without having gone through disappointment and struggle, I would have never been content with a life that starts off each morning by dropping a monster-size load of laundry into the washer. I would have scoffed at the real magic of arguing with my 7-year-old about why the original Star Wars trilogy is better than the newer one. I would have never appreciated the simple joy of sitting on an old, worn couch while teaching my youngest to read. My kids may grow up one day and wish there had been more “magic” during their childhood, but hopefully I will have raised them well enough to overcome that disappointment.

Into each life, a little rain must fall. As parents, perhaps it is best if we just forget the umbrella every now and then.

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