“Learning Disappointment


I was sharing with  a contemporary a couple of experiences from our childhoods. On Valentine’s Day each student had a box on her desk to collect valentine cards from fellow pupils. We would count up our cards at the end of the day and would be regularly sad that we had fewer cards than students we knew were more popular. In gym class, two of the most athletic girls would be chosen as team captains by the teacher. Then in turn each girl would pick members from the remaining girls. I was nearly always chosen last.

A much younger(by fifty years!) gym member said “They don’t do any of that now.” When questioned, he told us that for Valentine’s Day each student has to either bring no cards or one card for each student. Teams are no longer picked by student team captains, but assembled by the gym teacher. He went on to tell us that in soccer leagues each player received a trophy. Also in Boy Scouts each boy who made a pine derby car got a trophy. Apparently it was important no one left with “negative” feelings.  We used to call these feelings “disappointment.”

I was indeed disappointed to receive fewer cards than more popular girls. However, I did know I was not one of the “in” crowd, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. In a similar way, I knew that I was the smallest and least athletic girl in my class. I wouldn’t have put me on a team either. I had feelings about both instances, but I never expected that everything in life would be fair.

So I went into life with the ability to deal with disappointment. It would have been easier if my parents had helped me with that, but they didn’t. Neither did many parents in the 1950’s, most of whom figured we had to learn to be disappointed on our own. I asked a mental health professional about the things the young person told me. She said that in fact all that cushioning from disappointment has a very negative effect. She said by preventing children from maneuvering challenging situations, adults send kids into the world unequipped to deal with the real ones they will encounter. She said, in fact, that many of those “treated all the same” kids fall apart in college when such accommodations are no longer made.

A child in my life really wanted to win the science fair. She didn’t. She was very disappointed. She didn’t get a trophy for trying, though, since her school doesn’t operate that way. We have felt her disappointment with her, but we haven’t taken it away. As the Rolling Stones once put it so crudely,”You can’t always get what you want.” It’s a good thing to know how to handle.


33 thoughts on ““Learning Disappointment

  1. The inability to deal with the negatives in life may well have contributed to current students’ inflexibility and their inability to tolerate opinions different from their own. It will have an even bigger contribution to the increase in young people with mental health issues.
    And, of course, gun/knife crime by young people has increased exponentially in our respective countries.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you are on to something, Cathy. I had a sense when one post followed another that there might be some connection not yet clear to me. Certainly being rattled by discomfort might make you want to silence anyone who challenged you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know a young man who was put on a pedestal by his parents. Never a negative comment, bailed out of every transgression got his every wish fulfilled. He is now in rehab and it appears he will be there a long time. He believes his issues are the result of others, not him.


  3. It amuses, and saddens, me when so many people, after they have died, are described as legends, or heroes, or any other superlative, when they were just an ordinary everyday person as the vast majority of us are.


  4. Elizabeth, I have had numerous conversations with different people about the fact that in school kids are not allowed to fail, and as you stated, all that cushioning from disappointment has a very negative effect. “She said by preventing children from maneuvering challenging situations, adults send kids into the world unequipped to deal with the real ones they will encounter.” I have said that time and again.


  5. I don’t remember being disappointed by the grade school valentines – that actually brings back sweet memories – but there were plenty of other disappointments to weather. I’m glad to hear the view of the mental health professional on this. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back to something more balanced. I do agree with the Rolling Stones on this one! 🙂


  6. I have mixed feelings about the situation facing kids today. I agree that giving everyone a participation trophy fails to prepare young people for real life, and is a generally unfortunate idea. But I’m also glad that more adults are choosing to step in when real bullying is going on. When I was in school, kids were pretty much allowed to bully at will while teachers looked the other way.


  7. When I didn’t get picked for sports teams at school, I was relieved, not disappointed.
    In my grandson’s school (he is 5) they do not encourage ‘winning’ in races or games. Instead, they talk about ‘inclusion’, ‘group achievement’,and ‘participation’. Human nature being what it is, those kids will have a shock when they grow up and go out into the workplace.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  8. I get both sides of this issue, Elizabeth. When it comes to bringing cards for Valentine’s Day, we had a similar policy at my school. Either you brought one for everyone, or you didn’t bring any. By the way, I always got cards for kids in my class if they came to me privately and said they were unable to participate for financial reasons. The difference here for me is that some child should not get more because he/she is more popular.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe in giving awards out to everyone. Life doesn’t work that way, and learning to deal with disappointment is part of life. A few years our staff voted to give every child an end of the year award for something. (Something I opposed but went along with the consensus.) Some of the awards were so ridiculous that the older kids laughed at them. There were awards for the “most energetic” which the older students and teachers all knew was code for this kid can’t sit still. It cheapens the awards for those who truly deserve them.

    Before someone brings up the issue of what about the poor kid who isn’t academically gifted, there were plenty of other awards not based on intelligence. Teachers passed out awards for things such as responsibility, kindness, teamwork, and handwriting. I recently ran into one of my former students, who told me that he still remembered getting an award for integrity.


    1. I like the value awards. A friend’s daughter had that at her school and it meant a lot to kids. But everyone didn’t get one. I like that you filled in for kids who couldn’t afford Valentines. I think prizes should mean something for kids and not be handed out en masse.


  9. I don’t remember ever worrying about whether I got more or fewer Valentines. (I’m sure I wasn’t at the high end for receiving them.) I do however remember trying to figure out whether the people that sent me valentines gave me ones that they personally liked (and in another words were friends), or instead sent me one of the “ugly” ones in their package.


  10. This is well stated, my friend. At our Montessori school, my boss often sings the first line of that song when a child is feeling slight disappointment about not getting their wish about something minor. We do try to be present with them as they feel more serious sadness over something and help them recover but not deny them their real feelings.


  11. I think children need to experience and learn from disappointment. I also think that children deserve praise for putting forth good efforts even when they don’t succeed and excel. Yet, some blanket solutions don’t work well in all situations and environments, and fail to help children understand nuances, complexities, and all the color and texture that exists between “winning” and “losing.” (I really had to edit this comment down, Elizabeth 😁).


    1. A agree that kids need praise when they have tried hard. However, I think that is best expressed in individual instances. Giving everyone a prize seems to me a poor approach.


  12. I agree with your view, Elizabeth. Kids have to learn to deal with disappointment and also to work hard if they want to achieve. This attitude that everyone must be allowed to join in [especially music concerts where the poor parent captive audience bear the brunt of the lack of practice] make me cross. My child practices every day and gives a good rendition. Other kids come on stage and it is apparent they have spent no time preparing. It is wrong for people to be rewarded for non-performance.


  13. These new policies they’ve come up with to spare feelings is why these new U.S. generations are so entitled and don’t know how to handle rejection. No one will ever convince me otherwise.


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