My heart sank as my sixth grader excitedly pulled out the permission slip for the much-anticipated field trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park—not because she couldn’t go, but because I knew what her first question would be: “Mom, can you come?”
The disappointment on her face when I had to say no mirrored my own. No parent wants to let down a child when it comes to attending field trips, classroom parties, sports games, recitals, concerts, plays or the many other activities that involve parent participation. Whether we work full time, part time or not at all, we usually cannot be present at each opportunity related to our child’s activities and school. Throw in more than one child, and you have a recipe for frustration and disappointment.
That fact is, we will disappoint our kids at times, but that doesn’t mean we have to become disheartened about those missed games, trips or other events. Here are hacks to help parents keep such absences in perspective.
- Do what you can when you can. For most of us, our disposable time fluctuates from month to month or even week to week. When you have time available, show up at the event, activity or game. For example, I might not be able to commit to an all-day field trip, but I can volunteer a couple of hours at the book fair.
- Know your children. Some kids are more prone to acute disappointment when a parent misses what the child considers to be a milestone event, while other children are less likely to get upset by an occasional skipped game. “It depends on the temperament of any said child,” said Geraldine Zahn-Erikson, a Warrenton, Va., mother of eight. “Smaller children need you there more and older children want their space.”
- Ask for help. Tag-team activities with your co-parent, and don’t be shy about calling in reinforcements when neither one of you can make it. For instance, when I had to be out of town for our American Heritage Girls troop’s Mother-Daughter Tea, I asked my mother-in-law to take my two daughters, who had a lovely time with their grandmother. Another friend frequently sends her au pair to attend events she and her husband can’t make.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep. When you miss an event or game, don’t immediately promise to attend the next one—unless you’ve checked your calendar and are sure you can go. It’s always better to wait before committing than to continually promise to show up and have to bail.
- Decide ahead of time what you can do. With a little forethought, most of us can have a pretty good idea of what we’ll be able to attend easily and what might be more difficult. “When there was a conflict with schedules of my four kids, I rotated which event I had to miss,” said Tabitha Funk of Aberdeen, Idaho. “For example, when there was a volleyball game and a football game at the same time, I’d skip volleyball this time, and football the next.” That consistency helped temper her children’s expectations.
- Remember it’s not about you. While our presence is important, it’s more about our child enjoying the activity than about us. “As a high schooler, my parents were there for nearly everything, but I also had a lot of freedom in those activities with friends,” said Jane Dorchester of Silver Spring, Md. “It meant a lot that they came because it contributed to the sense that they were there for me, but I also treasured being on my own.”
- It’s also not about the performance. Sometimes, we can overlook the fact that a child who sits on the bench or is in the background is participating just as much as the kids in the big moments. “I felt that the kids needed to know that I was there to support whatever they decided to do, whether they were the star of the team or a bench warmer or somewhere in between,” Funk said.
- Use technology to your advantage. Can’t make your child’s piano recital? See if another parent can record it and watch it later with your child. For other events where silence isn’t required, such as sports games, use Facetime and Skype to view all or part of the game with the assistance of your spouse, friend or other family member.
But when the timing is bad and there’s no ready substitute, here are some ideas on how to help our children handle the disappointment.
- Remind them of what you do or have done. Humans tend to have very short memories—we’re more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of people, and kids are no different. Simply prodding them to recall what you have attended this school year can go a long way to tempering the disappointment-of-the-moment.
- Acknowledge their sadness. Too often, we want to gloss over a child’s feelings when it comes to disappointments. After all, who wants to feel bad about something that can’t be helped? Take a few minutes to commiserate with the child about your missing the field trip, and don’t be shy about saying how sad you are about the circumstances too.
- Put things in perspective. Especially with more than one child, we have to make tough choices when it comes to the family’s schedule. At times, those options include one child missing out on an event or a parent attending a sibling’s activity instead. “Last night, my oldest had to forgo an event so we could attend other events,” said Zahn-Erikson. “There was no angst because this is how life is and he realized it isn’t always about him.” This type of attitude helps our children learn the value of family and the give-and-take involved in being part of a family.
- Set aside time for one-on-one reflection. When I have to miss an important event or field trip, I deliberately set aside time for a “debriefing” with the child after the activity. I give the child my undivided attention (without interruption from siblings) to listen to whatever he or she wants to share about the event. Navigating our work and responsibilities with the requests of our children doesn’t have to lead to frustration and regret. With some thought and effort, we can be present for our kids in a host of ways, including our actual presence at the parties, field trips, games, concerts, recitals, and events.
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