Back to the Future? Really?
My parents rained on parades. This was partly because although we had enough money to get by, we did not have more than that. The family would not have the latest model car, a second home, or exotic vacations. There would be a used Oldsmobile (my father’s invariable choice) and a week on a nearby lake if some friend or boss made a cottage available. There would be adequate clothing, but no one would be a fashion plate. And who needs to go to restaurants? This was not a terrible hardship perhaps because things like smartphones and Air shoes and overly expensive dolls and other toys did not seem to exist. On the other hand, I remain frugal today, perhaps excessively so.
The dampening, however, was not just about material expectations; it was about life in general. Some typical interchanges: It’s a beautiful day today. Yes, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. We won the ballgame! Yes, but you play the (powerhouse) next game. The Halloween party is going to be great. Well, it is probably going to be much like the one last year, and I am sure you remember that.
The point, I guess, was to avoid disappointments. If you did not expect much, you would not be dashed, crushed, frustrated by what did happen. And if good things did happen, then you could feel good. But, of course, only for a brief time because disappointments were always looming. My Mom and Dad, by spritzing on expectations, no doubt thought they were being good parents by shielding us from disappointment.
My daughter when young often had great enthusiasm for some coming event. Often I knew that occasion would not live up to her excitement. My instinct was to act like my parents. I needed to protect that precious little one by referring to my experiences to show her how boring, or whatever, it was going to be. Then she would not be disappointed. Perhaps I initially did that, but then I realized that such a condescending speech only deprived her if her pre-event excitement. If the event itself truly was a bust, then there was no enjoyment whatsoever. My daughter actually taught me what had been drilled out of me in childhood, enjoy the buildup to something. Get that enjoyment no matter what happens later.
This practice was put to a severe test at Orlando’s Universal Studios when she spotted the Back to the Future. She had loved the movie and was so eager to go on the ride. But I did know some things about my daughter, and I did know that did not like thrill rides. (Another reason to love her. If she had liked roller coasters, I might have to endure them with her. But the last times I have been on such attractions, admittedly quite some time ago, I felt sick for hours afterwards.) I have no idea what she thought this was going to be, but I knew it was going to be awful for her. As we endued the long line, her excitement grew and grew, and I kept debating with myself about telling her we were not going to do it. The more time I internally waffled, the more excited she became.
We did it. It was not a ride that plunges and twists. It was worse. It was one of those virtual reality things where you do not get sick from teal motion, but through the trickery of projections. You know it is a trick, but still it makes you scream. You feel scared and stupid.
We came out, and it was clear she had been terrified and was not a happy person. I am sure that it lasted but a few minutes, and the wait, with its buildup in her mind had been much longer—the period of enjoyment had been much longer than the period of disappointment (and terror)–but this time in not taking away her expectations I was not sure that I had done right.
What should a good parent have done?
Recently she and I had dinner, and the Back to the Future ride came up. Although decades ago, she still remembers it vividly. I asked her if I had been a bad parent. She shook her head no. But then again she was expecting me to pick up the restaurant bill. (If you meet her, ask her about the Disney ride, It’s a Small World, and you should be convinced that, at least some of the time, I was a good father.)