It was the kind of small moment that usually slips by unnoticed. But something about this fleeting incident—longer in the telling than the event itself—has stuck with me.
When my daughter, Becky, was 3, we attended a backyard birthday party that involved eight kids her age and their assorted parents. Because Becky knew only the birthday girl, she hugged the periphery of the activities, springing to life only when Dawn, the birthday girl’s mom, stepped to the center of the lawn to distribute brightly colored balloons.
“Mommy!” Becky said excitedly. “I want the red one!”
I turned toward Dawn just in time to see her handing the red balloon to another child. “Oops, it’s gone,” I said. “Quick, quick. Better get over there and pick another color before they’re all gone.”
Becky scurried to the hostess’s side. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I heard her say. “I want the orange one.” Moments later she returned to me triumphantly clutching a string, the orange balloon bobbing above her head. We were still craning our necks in wonder at the awesomeness of her balloon when Dawn approached from one side, an anxious-looking father and his weeping daughter from the other. “Jill?” Dawn said. “Tiffany wants the orange balloon. Do you think Becky could pick another color?”
I felt a twitch of irritation at the parental full-court press. But with two small children witnessing the adult interaction, I thought it best to make light of the situation. “Sweetie?” I said to Becky with a cheerful lilt in my voice. “Do you think there’s another color you would like? Say, blue?”
“Sure,” Becky said, unfazed. As Dawn handed Becky the blue balloon and I handed the orange balloon to the father, Dawn murmured in my ear, “Crisis averted.” A minute later, the father approached me and said, “Thank you.” I shrugged and willed myself to let the moment pass …
… until I got home. Then I played and replayed the incident in my head, my feelings careening from anger, to bewilderment, to sadness. How dare that father demand something for his daughter at the expense of my child! What kind of message did he think he was imparting to his daughter? More important (once this mama bear calmed down), what lesson had little Tiffany taken from the party, along with the orange balloon?
The more I thought about it, the more I became—and remain—convinced that the real teaching goes on in the lessons we parents impart through our actions and attitudes, as we help our young children navigate the details of daily life. We are, in effect, our children’s mirrors. If we reflect flexibility, adaptability, and a positive attitude, it’s likely they will follow our lead. If we mirror a message that affirms, “Yes, you are the center of the universe,” they are likely to carry on like the tyrannical queen in Alice in Wonderland. “Off with their heads—or I’ll bring on the tears!”
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anxious dad in this story. It’s possible that he was acting from a generous impulse, namely to avert a meltdown that risked spoiling the party for the other children. If so, that suggests he knew his daughter to be tantrum-prone. But that, in turn, suggests that this was not the first time Tiffany had brandished noisy tears to get her way.
While my daughter lost out on the balloon she wanted, she got a useful lesson in coping with disappointment. As for Tiffany, she walked away with the orange balloon, yes, but she also lost out on what could have been a valuable life lesson.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents