When Anticipation Killed the Kiddo

By Guest Blogger Ginny Olson, author of the blog MothersRest.com

I have a rule when dealing with small children and major life events: Don’t tell them that something AMAZING is gonna happen until the DAY OF the event. Occasionally I break this rule. Hey, kid, you’re going to DISNEY WORLD! In three days! And things go haywire. Because “three days” means nothing to a 3-year-old. Just like “tomorrow” is pretty much 5 minutes from now.

Eat lunch? Forget it. Take a nap? Not a chance. It’s all… Is it time to go to DISNEY WORLD yet?!

Nothing much gets accomplished. There’s lots of angst. Because the little guy is sure he’s gonna miss the AMAZING thing. So he asks about it all. day. long. For several days.

Seriously, y’all, don’t tell your kid she’s going to DISNEY WORLD til you’re halfway there.

This rule keeps life from going off the rails. It keeps your kiddo’s brain from short circuiting from all the ANTICIPATION about the promised event. It means she’ll go to school and go to bed without a fuss. (If only that were true. I mean, we are talking about small, irrational people.)

On Saturday, I learned that the rule needs modification. The afternoon involved a BIRTHDAY PARTY!

My kid lives for cupcakes. That morning I wanted to bring him joy, so I told him that “later on” he was going to Lucy’s party. Joy is an understatement. He was SUPER EXCITED! Spinning around, jumping off things, talking nonstop. About cupcakes. Because the party is secondary (sorry, Lucy) – it’s basically an excuse to eat cupcakes.

At that moment, life stopped. The party wasn’t for another SIX HOURS. But, like the concept of tomorrow, what 3-year-old understands the concept of 3pm?

I moved into damage control. Distract the child at all costs. That meant my husband should take him to the grocery store. An activity he loves. (Ask him where we get milk – he will tell you: the “farmer squeezes those things on the cow” into bottles, then he puts the bottles on a truck and drives the truck to the store where we go to buy them. Farm-to-frig. I’m so proud.)

Oh, no, momma, I cannot go to the store. I must go to Lucy’s birthday party!
No, son, you see, the party isn’t for another 6 hours.

Hubby threw the kid into the car. Distract the toddler at all costs!
Kid and dad returned from the store.

Ok, son, time to potty.
Oh, no, momma, I cannot go potty. I must go to Lucy’s birthday party!
No, son, you see, the party isn’t for another 4 hours.

And so it went.

I even drew a flow chart to map out the agenda for the rest of the day. So he could visualize how a wagon ride, lunch and his brother’s nap would occupy the next several hours. And THEN Lucy’s birthday party!

He didn’t buy it. There were meltdowns. That’s because anticipation doesn’t just bring joy, it also brings CRAZY.

According to neurologist, Gerhard Roth, “…Anticipation includes a sense of tension that things can get even better. In other words, the possibility of a reward can actually make us happy. If anticipation is unfulfilled, this can lead to…negative emotions. Lowering expectations can help with this.”

I tried hard to lower expectations and remind him that the PARTY IS NOT RIGHT NOW.

We made it through the wagon ride and lunch. His daddy threatened to take him to another grocery store. Which resulted in wailing and gnashing of teeth.

His brother went down for a nap. I resumed the task of distracting the toddler at all costs. I suggested we wrap Lucy’s present. Roth-the-neuroscience-guy applauded me: “Wrapping presents provides an extra layer of anticipation that builds toward the surprise.”

We finally made it to the party. With the beloved cupcakes.

So, new rule: Don’t tell the kid that something AMAZING is gonna happen until the MINUTE BEFORE you walk out the door. In other words, lower expectations by not creating any. In other words, don’t tell your kid she’s going to Disney World – til you’re staring at Cinderella’s Castle.

Mommy, did you say we’re going to Disney World?
Disney World? Never heard of it.

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5 thoughts on “When Anticipation Killed the Kiddo

  1. Leigh

    I guess this is an example of how each family is different. I felt anxiety just reading this article. I cannot imagine my children not being prepared mentally for what’s happening in their lives, and everyone has always seemed pretty calm about it. We go through the weekly schedule on Sunday… “Brother has track on Tuesday and Thursday, Sister #1 has lacrosse practice on Monday and Wednesday, then a game on Saturday morning at 10, Sister #2 has gymnastics after school on Tuesday, piano lessons on Wednesday, then on Saturday we have X, Y, & Z. Next Sunday we are going for a cookout at the Smith’s house. Yes, Bobby and Jill will both be there to play with!” My kids help plan our vacation activities months in advance, too. I feel it helps them be more invested in the experience and learn how to reasonably look forward to upcoming events.
    On the day of a party I might get questions about when something is happening, but it helps them plan their time for the day independently. It helped my kids at a young age learn about time and clocks and calendars.
    Maybe I’m just old, and I’m glad you feel that works for your family.

    Reply

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