Whenever Helena Bogosian takes her daughters, Margot, 5, and Nina, 4, out to eat, she asks if they can have the same toy in their kids' meal so neither feels slighted. But one time the girls got different things because the restaurant had run out of the plastic grasshoppers they both wanted. Margot started crying hysterically, so the Tenafly, New Jersey, mom drove to four more franchises in fruitless pursuit of matching toys. By the time she gave up, it was dark, the kids were fast asleep in their car seats, and she felt foolish. "I learned that avoiding a child's disappointment can be harder than helping her deal with it," she says.
Many parents today seem willing to go to ever-greater lengths to protect their kids from the pain of dashed expectations. Consider how many preschools have a policy against inviting only select classmates to a birthday celebration; everyone must be included. At the party, you have to avoid playing musical chairs because someone ends up without a seat, feeling excluded. Lots of sports leagues for younger kids don't even bother to keep score anymore -- to prevent one team from feeling like losers. And all because we don't want our children to feel bad about themselves.
The irony is that disappointments are actually beneficial for kids. Learning to deal with setbacks helps them develop key characteristics they'll need to succeed, such as coping skills, emotional resilience, creative thinking, and the ability to collaborate. "Parents see failure as a source of pain for their child instead of an opportunity for him to say, 'I can deal with this. I'm strong,'" says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
If you're shaking your head and clinging to the idea that it's your job to make your child feel like a million bucks, you might be interested in what the research shows. A review of 200 studies published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that having high self-esteem didn't cause kids to get better grades or do better in their career. "Success leads to feeling good about yourself, not the other way around," explains Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., a psychologist at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Even more revealing: An experiment published in the Journal of Social Science and Clinical Psychology found that students who were faring poorly in college did even worse following efforts to boost their self-esteem.
So should you resist the urge to rebuild your child's block tower when it tumbles to the floor, or refrain from talking to his coach if he never gets to play goalie? There's no right answer. You need to determine how much struggling he can bear. But there are everyday steps you can take to teach him how to cope when things don't work out exactly the way he wants.