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

Why are we afraid to tell children that lifes not fair?

By Harlyn Aizley |

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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About Harlyn Aizley


Harlyn Aizley

Harlyn Aizley is the author of Buying Dad: One Woman's Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor and Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All! She lives near Boston.

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

  1. Meg says:

    My tactic in this situation would be to say “well, if you don’t want it because it has a squiggle on top then I’ll have to eat it instead – it’s squiggle cake or no cake”.

    They should be glad to get fancy cakes! Maybe I’m mean but surely there’s some sort of kesson here about things not having to be the best on the outside to be just as good on the inside. I’m sure the squiggle cakes tasted just as yummy.

    My husband’s the first to take things off our kids if they start fussing. “But I wanted the pink one” – he’ll just take it off his daughter and put it back in the fridge before she realises that she’d rather have the yellow yoghurt than no yoghurt.

    Why wasn’t someone telling the sad girl “WOW, you’re lucky you got the squiggle! those are the best cakes, the magic squiggle woah, that’s so cool, you don’t want a boring princess do you”

  2. Todays Modern Family says:

    I love this article and must repost! Why are we so afraid to acknowledge disappointment when it comes to our children? It’s an excellent question. You’re right, not acknowledging it doesn’t make it go away.

  3. FSE says:

    Yeah, I don’t like the “you don’t get upset” part of that platitude. That just makes people feel bad for their legitimate feelings. I don’t like it when people tell me not to feel upset, either. It makes me really mad, actually. I’ve heard “You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit” which seems a little better, if you have to use a cliched expression.

  4. Voice of Reason says:

    I think I always assumed that ‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset’ was just a way of saying ‘Hey, let’s show our good manners here and not complain that everything isn’t exactly as we would have it.’ Then, we would later have the discussion that sometimes life sucks. After all, a cupcake is a cupcake and, while it doesn’t seem like that to a five year old girl, it’s our job as parents to teach them that. (Hopefully they would also learn that the squiggle cupcake tastes exactly the same as the other one.)

    We DO have to teach our kids that sometimes life sucks, but we also have to teach them to be polite, gracious and not act like spoilt brats. They need to know both things to be successful adults. I think what you said to the little girl was perfect for the situation, but I’m surprised it had to be whispered. I’m sure I would have said, “Oh! Sometimes life sucks, but you got the squiggle cupcake. If you don’t want it I’d happily eat it. I love cupcakes.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Okay, I’m going to come in defense of “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” I use it. Wow, I use it a lot. Becuase here’s the thing. We are not all identical to one another. We are not all going to get the same things or have the same experiences. Our lives are different from one another, thank God, and when it comes down to cupcake designs, and which one you got, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but getting upset over it only takes away from the real purpose of the birthday party–to celebrate your friend’s birthday. It is not about you. And that’s a huge lesson for kids. Sometimes it’s not about them. It’s about someone else and yes, you are going to have to suck it up becuase when it comes around that it’s your birthday and you have a beading party and the place runs out of the little bell beads that everyone wants to use you are going to hope that even though your friend is upset that she didn’t get any, that she’ll remember that it’s your party and choose the pretty purple flower beads instead. Minus the tantrum. By all means, express it to your mommy later. Tell her what a stinker it was that you have a purple flower bracelet instead of a pink bell bracelet, but remember that your disappointment is not something that needs to bring the birthday party to a screeching halt. In general, children are seemingly hardwired to want what other’s have. Teaching them to appreciate the things they get for what it is, not for how it compares to what everyone else got, is a huge lesson and sometimes, as a parent, you end up with the old, “you get what you get…” expression. Because after all, it’s just a cupcake. They all taste the same. Delicious! In my book any day with a cupcake is a happy day. This is what I would tell my kids. Not, oh poor you, but enjoy!

  6. Lucky says:

    I think “you don’t get upset” is good for things we can’t change, like the squiggle cupcake, or the promotion. It’s more about teaching kids to handle disappointment without throwing a tantrum, and to teach them about what’s important. My kids can get upset about not getting the right cupcake, they can even decide that at their party all the cupcakes will be exactly the same. But they will not demand/barter for a different cupcake. As we say in our house ‘that’s not polite.’

  7. Sheri says:

    In our neck of the woods, the phrase in use is “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” I think that is really the point–not that the child must never feel upset, but that a public tantrum should not be the reaction!

  8. Lo says:

    i think it’s important to learn to handle disappointment in a constructive and polite manner. we can’t help being upset about something and telling your kids to simply not be upset when that’s how they’re feeling really doesn’t help anyone. discounting a child’s emotions or belittling how they’re feeling can be really painful for the kid. my mom did that a lot when i was growing up and, granted, in this case it was only a cupcake, but the same attitude can trickle into more serious matters where the kid has a genuine reason to be upset. if this cupcake incident had occurred when i was a kid, i have a feeling my mom would’ve said “there are children starving in africa and you should be so lucky to have a cupcake” since those starving kids in africa seemed to always show up when i was upset about anything. bullied in school? at least you’re not a starving kid in africa! didn’t get the lead in the play? at least you’re not a starving kid in africa! lol. sometimes the “you get what you get” phrase is fine, just don’t let it become a default mantra.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s a bad idea to intervene in a minor parenting moment… with a subjective opinion to boot! Parent beating child = step in. Parent effectively saying “Be polite and don’t throw a tantrum over something minor” = MYOB.

  10. Rosana says:

    If we treat them like fragile humans that is what they will become. Many adults underestimate the ability of kids to deal or accept negative situations, I think that we as parents are the ones that make them softy.
    This reminds me the show Obssesed where therapist have to apply cognitive behavioral therapy where the individuals are exposed to situations that triggers the compulsive behaviors (which they use to control their ansiety) Anyway, the purpose is to show them that being expose to the situation will make them anxious but they can control it if they want.
    Maybe if we spend time teaching our kids that it is ok to feel dissapointed for accepting the cupcake they wanted, they will enventually realize that the world will not come to an end and will avoid paying a therapist for teaching them the same thing.

  11. Rosana says:

    sorry should have wrote “anxiety” and “the cupcake the did not want”

  12. Anonymous says:

    The correct response as someone else suggested, is, “You don’t want your cupcake, sweetie? That’s good, I’ll eat it for you.” The kid should be darn happy they get a tasty treat, period.

  13. estab1971 says:

    In my part of the country (where “get” is pronounced “git”) We say, “You git what you git and you don’t throw a fit!”

  14. Korinthia Klein says:

    I agree with the idea that kids need to learn life can be unfair, but the example offered in this essay doesn’t sit well with me. I have to explain to my kids that it’s unfair other kids get to play with their daddies while their own dad is deployed. I have to explain it’s unfair I have to drag them with me to the store every time I go. I explain it’s unfair that we can’t go roller skating because without another adult along I can’t do that with 3 kids when none of them can really skate. A cupcake with a squiggle? There are kids in the world who will never get such a cupcake. That’s unfair. I’d rather my kids understand they are the lucky ones and just appreciate the cupcake.

  15. JEssica says:

    What is wrong in acknowledging a crown or a princess is better than a squiggle? And as life is often unfair, what is wrong with being upset with the discrepancy? I think invalidating your child’s feelings are good place to start if you want your child to not come to you with their problems, because you have shown them their feeling are not important to you.

  16. Anonymous says:

    You get what you get and you dont get upset was taught to my daughter in pre-school and I repeat it all the time. Sadly, I have to reinforce this concept now because at some point comparisons get made and sooner my daughter learns that our little one bedroom I own is never going to materialize into a PH apt and a second home. Kids need to realize that they cant alway get waht they want.

    I just dont think there is anything wrong with being disappointed.

  17. Anon says:

    Every time someone reads this article, an entitled brat gets her wings.

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