When Your Surprises Don't Go As Planned (AKA Your Kids Act Nonchalant About Disneyland!)
My wife, Mel, and I had all three kids lined up on the sofa for a big surprise. Tristan, our 9-year-old, was in a Pokémon T-shirt and brown shorts, his hair a mess, eyes open wide, assuming we were going to unveil some new video game system, I’m sure. Norah, our 7-year-old was in a princess dress, like always. I’m not sure what she assumed the surprise was, but she was clearly excited. And our toddler, well, she was watching a movie on the iPad because it was the only way to get her to sit still for the big reveal.
After a year of saving, we’d paid to take a family trip to Disneyland. This was no small feat for Mel and me. We both work in education. We live in a small home in rural Oregon. Our whole marriage has been about scrimping and saving, and this would be the biggest family vacation we’d ever taken — three days in the park, the Disneyland Hotel, park hopper passes, the works. We’d had so many conversations about how excited we were to give this to our kids. How much fun they would have. How thrilled they’d be once we told them. How all the hard work, and saving, and cutting costs so we could save some cash would be worth it. In the weeks leading up to the big reveal, we spoke in code. We planned after the kids were in bed.
We were ninjas.
We wrapped the passes in wrapping paper, along with the Disneyland luggage tags that were a free gift. Mel handed the package to our two oldest, and they ripped open the paper. Mel and I smiled at each other, both of us thinking about all the times we’d imagined this moment.
“What’s this?” Tristan asked.
“They are passes to Disneyland,” Mel said with a little bit of squeal in her voice.
“Oh…” Tristan said. His voice about as neutral as when we tell him we’re having PB&J for lunch.
Norah had a very similar reaction, and it felt like a balloon somewhere inside me deflated.
I looked over at Mel. Her lips were in a straight line, eyebrows furrowed. Then I looked back at the kids. The tickets were sitting on the floor. My son already had his headphones on, and he was back to playing some game. Norah was up and heading back to her bedroom. No one clapped. No one cheered. No one shook with excitement.
Now, as a parent, there are a few ways to interpret a moment like this. It could be that our children are spoiled little shits who have become accustomed to this sort of treatment. Now, I don’t think this is the case considering the biggest family vacation we’ve taken before this moment was five years ago, when we lived in Minnesota, and drove to Saint Louis to visit their free zoo.
It could also mean that we’d failed our children in some way by not teaching them all the wonders of Disneyland. I know when I was a kid, taking a trip to the Magic Kingdom was basically the subject of lore. Both kids and parents talked about how amazing it was to go there.
But what I think actually happened, and I believe this happens to a lot of parents, is that you take all your emotions and expectations of childhood, put it in a new little package, and try to push it into your children’s lives under the assumption that they will value the same things you did as a child. Parents do it with sports all the time. You can see them on the sidelines, yelling at their children to “have fun” or “get in the game” or “take it seriously” all the while their child is sitting on the soccer field, legs crossed, picking grass, clearly bored to death.
Mel and I both visited Disneyland as children, and it was one of our most rewarding memories. In fact, the one time I went was with my father. This was about a year before he left my mother, and it’s one of the few good memories I have of him. The rest are a mix of neglect and visiting him in jail. But I think, with our kids, they just hadn’t experienced it yet. They didn’t know what to be excited for, so they simply shrugged. They didn’t have all that rewarding insight and emotional baggage that Mel and I had revolving around Disneyland.
But in the moment, I didn’t think about all of that. In the moment, I was offended. I was shocked. I never felt more confused by my children, and I honestly wondered if I was doing something wrong as a father.
“Really?” Mel said. “Really? You don’t care?” She asked Norah to enter the room and told her about all the princesses she would meet. She told her about Snow White’s Castle. Then we told Tristan about the rides and characters and all the Star Wars attractions. This all led to us going online and looking at videos of this attraction and then another, and once we were done, it started to make sense to them. They started to look excited. Success!
Ultimately, we had an amazing trip. The kids loved every moment of it. And now that they’ve experienced it, I know that if we surprised them again with passes to Disneyland, their reactions would be much different. But what I don’t think Mel and I understood until that moment is that our children are still new to all this. They haven’t experienced all that much just yet, and we can’t expect them to share our excitement over something they haven’t experienced.
Most importantly, we can’t assume that they will love all the things we loved as children because they are different people being raised in a different time. Just because they don’t love what we loved as children doesn’t make them spoiled and ungrateful. It just makes them unique individuals.
But, let me be clear, I’m really glad they had a good time at Disneyland because that was a lot of money.
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