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 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 disappointment. If you did not expect much, you would not be dashed, crushed, or 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 just around the corner. By spritzing on expectations, my mom and dad no doubt thought they were being good parents by shielding us from disappointment.
The daughter, like many young children, often had great enthusiasm for some coming event. Often I knew that the 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 it was unlikely to meet her high expectations. Then she would not be disappointed. In the beginning I may have done that, but then I realized that such a speech only deprived her of her pre-event excitement. If the event truly was a bust, then there was no enjoyment whatsoever. My daughter 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 ride. She had loved the movie and was eager to go on the attraction. But I knew some things about the daughter, and one of them was that she did not like thrill rides. (Another reason to love her. If she had liked roller coasters, I might have had to endure them with her. But the last time I had been on such a thing, admittedly quite some time ago, I felt sick for hours afterwards.) I have no idea what she thought this ride was going to be, but I knew it was going to be awful for her. As we endured the long line, her excitement grew and grew, and I kept debating with myself whether to tell her that 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 real 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 for the ride with her building excitement had been much longer—in other words, 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. I feared that the terror, even if brief, outweighed everything that had come before.
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 not to have warned her. 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.)