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Why are we afraid to tell our kids that sometimes life’s not fair?

Recently my daughter Phoebe and I were at a birthday party. Five-year-old girls poured from vents in the ceiling, cracks in the floor, through open windows. There were pigtails and pink clothing and loose teeth everywhere. A clown was flown in from New York to juggle stuffed bears, and two puppeteers performed a musical written about the birthday girl.

After an hour of fake fur and goofy high-pitched songs, the hostess approached with a tray covered mysteriously by a pink satin cloth. Beside the cloth rested a lone cupcake with one lit candle. The hostess held the tray aloft so little hands could not peek beneath the satin and led the group in a raucous round of “Happy Birthday.” Per usual, the girls screamed rather than sang Happy Birthday, their eyes all the while fixed on that tray. The instant the song ended, the mom lifted the cloth from the tray with a dramatic flourish.

“More cupcakes!”

Sure enough the tray was full of beautiful, oversized cupcakes iced in chocolate, vanilla and, of course, more pink. Some had candy crowns on top, some had princesses, and some had…squiggles?

A squiggle? How many five-year-old girls want a squiggle of purple frosting when they can have a candy princess or a crown? I’ll tell you how many: none. Mothers exchanged worried glances and a wave of panic filled the room as the hostess began handing out the cupcakes.

You could tell which girls got a squiggle because they were the ones with the quivering lower lips who silently held their cupcakes out to their mothers. That’s when I heard it, delivered in a firm hushed whisper into a morose child’s ear.

You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

It’s the thing we adults in charge are supposed to pronounce when what we really want to say is, “You wait here, honey, and I’ll go rip a princess cupcake out of Natasha’s hands and give it to you.”

The mom in question, she of the annoying and unfair parental platitude, looked up to find me staring at her. Her daughter held a squiggle cupcake between two fingers like it was a dead hamster. Mom and I locked eyes. I know she wanted confirmation, for me to nod in agreement, Yes, you get a squiggle and you feel fine. But I just couldn’t. To her dismay all I was able to do was shake my head.

What kind of mother serves princesses, crowns, and squiggles? Of course the kids are upset. You get what you get and sometimes you get freaking crazy upset – ask any adult whoever was handed a pay increase less than what he or she requested, a quarter of Uncle Louie’s estate instead of half, bleacher tickets instead of seats behind home plate. You get what you get and sometimes you get pissed.

The mom looked down at the cupcake and shook her own head. Her daughter burst into tears.

Perhaps the notion that children need to learn to take what they’re given and not have negative feelings about it originated because when children have big, difficult emotions, (like those that happen when they get a squiggle rather than a princess or a crown), they want to cry and yell and throw the squiggle against the wall. But who wouldn’t? To me You get what you get and you don’t get upset seems more about denying an experience than teaching acceptance, more about dodging a tantrum and preventing disappointment than introducing a child to life lesson #8798: disappointment sucks but it happens all the time – sometimes every hour. How come we can’t discretely say, “You’re absolutely right, honey, squiggles suck”?

Denying disappointment doesn’t make it go away. So isn’t acknowledging it the first step in teaching our children how to manage that and other of life’s myriad upsets?

You get what you get and sometimes it’s totally worse than what someone else has gotten.

You get what you get no matter whether you’ve been a good girl for the last 24 hours or even the last 24 years.

You get what you get because some mothers are sadistic.

At the risk of causing a scene, I did the unthinkable. Her little girl stuck with the squiggle was looking at me with big sad eyes, the untouched cupcake limp in her hands.

I leaned over and whispered, “You get what you get and sometimes you do get upset.”

Her mouth fell open.

“But you eat it anyway.”

She smiled.

Thank goodness Phoebe got a crown.

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