Monday, November 14, 2016

The Art of Low Expectations

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we made a rookie parenting mistake. In a moment of frustration, when she would not get buckled in her car seat, I offered her a bag of fruit snacks if she would get buckled up. I don't want you to think that bribery was the problem, because, hey, that works. We've even been known to bribe one child to get another child to do something. "I'll give you all the change in my pocket, if you will get your little brother in his coat." That works too. The problem was that I offered her an ENTIRE bag of gummies, when she would have done it for one. We soon learned our lesson, and after some further research, discovered that a single Tic-Tac was the appropriate price for getting into your car seat, and whole bags of candy should be saved for appropriate things like potty training.

As parents, we want our kids to have an amazing childhood full of good things and exciting adventures. But time after time, I find myself frustrated and disappointed after what should have been a really fun event. For the past two years, we have bought tickets for a Christmas event at a local historical village. We loved the idea of wandering around the village after dark, with the lanterns lit,  riding in wagons and singing carols. But every year, before we left the house, the tantrums began. Someone didn't want to wear their coat or gloves or hat or shoes. We ended up carrying some screaming toddler to the car and strapping them in, so we could drive 40 minutes to an event. Did I mention it's after their bed time? Did I mention it's expensive? Did I mention it's cold? Did I mention that it always ended in a tantrum on the way out too?

Finally, I realized that part of the problem was me. I am naturally an idealist with super high expectations. Events, especially around the holidays, could never live up to my expectations. In my head, the kids would fully realize how much money and effort Mommy and Daddy put into planning this event. They would be filled with gratitude, they would act like perfect angels. When they didn't, I would be get mired down in a pit of parenting guilt and disappointment.

I finally realized that the solution was to be realistic about what our family enjoys and can handle, and to lower my expectations likewise.

If you ask my four-year-old son his favorite place in the world, he will gladly tell you: Costco. We go there every week. It is ten minutes from our house. We see the same snack ladies who dote on our kids and give them tubes of yogurt and bites of cake. Preschoolers care nothing for novelty. They want to go somewhere they already know they will be happy.

Kids are not actually that hard to impress. The town next to ours built a beautiful new forest-themed playground. Every time we go there, the kids have the most fun playing on a big pile of dirt they left in the woods.

We have never taken our kids to Disney World. If you take your child to Disney World, where do you go from there? How do you top it?  I wonder if we parents might be guilty of escalating fun to the point that it is not sustainable for families-- it might even be making us all miserable.

Right now, we have set the low expectation bar for vacations at a Hampton Inn with a pool. The kids are happy with this because they get to swim. We are happy with this because we can pay for it with my husband's hotel points. We make one or two long road trips a year, and we've found the best plan is just to find every Costco along the way and eat there. It's cheap, there aren't too many options, and we know they like it.One time we did go a little off-course and stopped at a grocery store for sandwich fixings, chips, and drinks. The kids were blown away. "Potato chips and root beer at one meal! This is almost as exciting as the time we ate cold cereal for dinner and watched The Sound of Music!" 

One of the highlights of our Thanksgiving vacation to West Virginia last year was when we visited a state park. We discovered an old playground (the kind they've probably outlawed by now) with the see-saws that  bang your bum hard on the ground, the swings that swing really high, and a sheet metal slide that was nearly as tall as the tree beside it. You could get some really good speed on that slide, especially if you were going head-first, which our kids were. My husband began taking slo-mo videos of the kids tumbling head-first off the slide, so they did it again and again and again. It wasn't the newest roller coaster, or IMAX movie, but our kids still ask if we can find that slide again.

Last year, our family decided to embrace frugality as a lifestyle. We wanted to get our finances under control and actually start saving money. We decided to cut our grocery budget, so we started eating more simply at home, reducing the number of meals where we ate meat and saving desserts for Sunday and dinner with friends on Tuesdays. We started looking everywhere for food that we could forage or harvest for free. We spent hours making applesauce and grape jelly from free fruit.

The unexpected side effect of all this frugality has been gratitude. For Christmas last year, our friends gave us a ham. They had raised the pig themselves and we were going to splurge to buy a ham from them, but they gave it to us as a gift. Since we had been eating so simply, that ham felt like such an extravagance. We still all get a little bit nostalgic thinking about that Christmas ham.We never would have felt that gratitude and appreciation if we have not been used to a steady diet of beans and rice. It tasted amazing, but even more so, it was a symbol of people who love us and love spending time with us. If our frugality hadn't pushed us into spending time with people instead of buying stuff, we never would have had that experience.

With my personality type, I will always want to make big plans for advent: something new and crafty everyday. This year, I  am lowering the bar for our holidays. We will skip the expensive events and light all our oil lamps at home. We will invite our friends into our home and sing Christmas carols and light candles and read the same beautiful story from the Bible that is always worth repeating.  As we come into the advent and Christmas season, I want to remember that when I set my expectations low, that's where I find contentment.


  1. I love everything about this! You will not regret these choices.

  2. Good for you, girl. All the kids really need is a steady supply of cardboard boxes and balloons. We rarely have desserts, so when we do, the kids savor every bite. We rarely get them new toys; we hit up thrift stores so much that when a toy comes from a relative and it's in packaging, they are dismayed at how hard it is to get to the playing part. At the end of it all, they aren't really all that interested in things. It's time with Mom and Dad. A little hotel room with a sweet pool? That's money in the bank. Everything else and they could care less. I love that you voiced this. It's full of wisdom on many levels.

    1. So true! I've always said that all a preschooler needs at a party is a whole room full of balloons.