This piece was published in the San Gabriel Tribune on May 4, 2003.
My 16-year-old daughter sat crumpled on the floor and my heart broke. She had applied to two summer art programs and just received a letter informing her that she was not accepted to the one she thought she would be accepted into.
The statewide program accepted one thousand applicants. The other one (all expenses paid) private program accepted fifty. As she read the “reject” letter, in her adolescent imagination, all hope was lost.
Parents begin to help children learn about disappointment when their offspring take their first wobbly steps into the world.
A great training ground is the checkout line at the grocery store. As harried parents load milk and bread on the conveyer belt, their children beg for bags of chips and candy bars that are conveniently placed at kids’ eye level.
When I see a mom say “no” in a tone that does not welcome debate, I see a parent who is teaching her children that they can’t always get what they want. I also see parents toss a bag of chips in the cart just to get their howling toddler to shut up. Both parent and child will pay a high price for that moment of peace in the future.
When children are small, it is the parent who pretty much controls their disappointment. If parents take care to ensure that their children will accept (without a temper tantrum) that they won’t get a computer app, or won’t be able to stay up to see a television show, they will be able to help them when bigger challenges arise.
By the time my daughter sustained the blow of the rejection letter, she had put back many bags of chips and tearfully returned countless candy bars to the display case. On that sad day, I pulled my daughter up from the floor and took her to her favorite restaurant for dinner.
As I watched her eat, I remembered a moment when she was three-years-old and returned home from pre-school in a huff. “Mommy, why didn’t you tell me it was going to rain?” she demanded. At that young age she believed I was omnipotent and controlled the world. I gently explained that, although I did my best to look out for her, I didn’t control the weather.
During dinner, her father and I talked about the disappointments we suffered. I told her my sister didn’t ask me to be her bridesmaid (even though I had asked her to be mine). I was asked by my roommates in the dorm at college to move out so they could have the girl they wanted, who was from their hometown, move in.
Her father felt bad that he was never accepted to a sports team. The girl he was going to ask to the prom went with his best friend instead.
“I was disappointed when I was born and found out you were my sister,” said my son. “That goes double for me,” my daughter shot back. Her attack on the brotherly dig seemed to cheer her up.
A couple of weeks later, another letter arrived. “I’m in!” my daughter screamed. “I’m going to Colorado!” I hollered with my own delight, grateful that the admissions committee recognized my daughter’s potential.
Many parents and their children anxiously await admission letters. Parents stand by and hope their children will achieve their dreams. Happy celebrations and hearty congratulations are desired, of course, but disappointment must be carefully navigated – with parents at the helm. Stay close and share you wisdom and your pain, and assurance that victory (just not this time) is at hand.
Kathleen Vallee Stein