The other day I heard a mom negotiating with her middle school-aged child. Her daughter was visibly upset and disappointed about missing out on an opportunity. The mom scrambled to calm her down as she became more and more distressed. She began to negotiate and offer alternative, tangible items to make up for the disappointment, which ultimately sufficed the daughter.
It was apparent to me how much this parent loved her child. She couldn’t stand to see her daughter upset. She tried every way she knew how to cushion that disappointment for her.
Here’s the thing though, there are many different ways to show our children we love them. Sometimes that’s words of encouragement and affirmation, experiences, and spending time with them. Most of the time, it’s simply the words that we use, our everyday actions, and the way we show up consistently. Loving them doesn’t always have to look like making and keeping them happy.
In fact, it shouldn’t always look that way.
Disappointment and sadness, frustration, and failure are all part of life at age three and age 30. I guarantee you, teachers and coaches, college professors, and employers are not going to compromise and negotiate to keep our adult children from feeling these parts of life. These professionals will be looking for strong, independent, regulated adults who can problem-solve through life’s inevitable disappointment.
I love my son. I can hardly put into words the love that I have for him. If you’re reading this as a parent, I know I don’t have to. I’m sure you feel the same way about your child[ren]. I would give up everything I have and love and care about for that child, and because I love him that much, I have to let him be disappointed.
And mad at me.
I have to let him fail.
At age two, this is easy, he has a handful of words, some I can’t even understand, but none of them hurt yet. I know that the tween and teen years are coming. I know that it will get harder and harder. The disappointment will be over larger things than bedtime. It will be more and more tempting to step in and save the day. But if I don’t acknowledge his feelings now and at age 10 and 16, if I don’t teach him age-appropriate ways to work through those feelings of disappointment, he’ll be 30 and expecting people to bend over backward to keep him happy.
The reality is we have hard work to do right now. We have to sit with a disappointed child now, not offering a solution or an alternative, a negotiation, or a compromise. Just sit with them, acknowledge the hurt or disappointment, and recognize that it might not be resolved right away. We might have to admit that we don’t have the answer or that we’re not going to give them the answer because they need to work through it on their own. Because it’s in the failing and the getting back up, in the despair and the disappointment, that our children learn. It’s where they learn that they’re strong, capable, and intelligent. This is where they problem solve, where they come to find self-confidence, where they come to understand that they’re not the only human beings on this planet. This is the space where they learn valuable lessons that they will need to carry them through adult life. As hard as it is, we have to give them that space.
It’s so tempting; we know as adults what disappointment and frustration and heartbreak feel like. We want to protect our little humans and make sure they never have to feel pain. We want to give them the world and, at the same time, keep them safe in our little bubbles. I honestly believe though, that to raise strong adults, we have to walk with our children through life’s painful and disappointing moments. Even if that means we have to come to terms with some of our own pain along the way. It’s an essential part of the parenting journey.
I hope, as my son grows up, that he’ll be able to recognize that everything I let him feel, everything I helped him work through without giving him the answers, I did all of that because of how much I love him.