Unrealistic Expectations: Why Our Snowflakes Suffer Meltdown

Mar 23, 2016 | Featured Posts by Holly Jahangiri, Gratitude, Politics & Social Issues

One of the first articles I ran across, this morning, was from a woman bemoaning the fact that her children had picked up extravagant, over-the-top expectations for every holiday, real or imagined. This phenomenon isn’t as new as she thinks it is. I have slightly cringe-worthy memories of taking custom-made, white chocolate lollipops shaped like Charlie Brown’s head to school on my birthday in grade school. No one wants their child to be “shunned” for bringing the wrong treats, or no treats, but that was over-the-top and most of the kids in my class would have preferred clumsy, homemade cupcakes with milk chocolate frosting or a handful of Tootsie Pops. They weren’t going to think I was less nerdy or unfashionable just because I brought expensive, custom-made, white chocolate treats in a Hershey bar world. It didn’t make them forget to taunt me for wearing ankle socks in a knee socks era.

Valentine’s Day was a traumatic exercise in creatively and kindly saying, “I don’t know you, you probably hate me, but here’s my heart, please don’t spit on it.” And then having to show off how many (or how few) cards and candies were snagged in a pathetically decorated, brown-paper lunch sack. Ugh. It’s not always joy for the little ones, either.

Holidays should be fun, and I don’t believe in telling others how to celebrate theirs. Family traditions build special memories. But they should be extracurricular events celebrated at home, with family and friends who love us. There’s no need to turn them into competitive sport – to practice one-upsmanship against other parents that our children will feel compelled to carry on, in turn. This isn’t “liberals trampling on time-honored traditions and trying to ban holidays in our schools.” For the love of God, everyone needs a break – parents, teachers, teachers’ helpers – but most of all, the kids. And school is meant for learning; it’s not a place for trying to outdo other parents in “who can send a child into a sugar coma first.”

My favorite Easter tradition? Getting up before the crack of dawn to watch the sun come up over the lake. Quietly dying eggs. Nibbling chocolate bunny ears (the solid kind, not those crumbly, hollowed-out, giant bunnies, but the small, hard, solid bunnies that lasted all morning and well-into the afternoon). My favorite Christmas traditions: walking through crunchy snow to stare in wonder at a neighbor’s (admittedly over the top) yard decorations and lights. Baking cookies for Santa and laying out carrots for his reindeer. Singing carols at church, at midnight, while being trusted to hold a candle and not burn anything down. When you’re a kid, just getting to stay up past your bedtime is a big deal – or should be – and dressing up, going to church, singing carols by candlelight just adds to the awe. I won’t lie; I loved opening presents, too. But it didn’t have to be 100 of them.

While we’re at it, when did Christmas get to eat all the other holidays? When I was a kid, we were forced to wait until the day after Thanksgiving (not yet dubbed “Black Friday”) to hear or sing Christmas carols. The streets were decorated, overnight, magically transforming them into a wonderland of colorful lights and toy trains and tacky holiday signs and ornaments – not professional, slick, beautiful-but-soulless citywide tableaux. It felt more personal, less artificial.

We all love Thanksgiving. Why? Because it’s about family and food. And remembering to be grateful for what we have. Sharing with those less fortunate. It hasn’t yet turned into a shopping frenzy. It quietly refuses, and we love it all the more for that. We even angrily (and successfully!) defend it from the encroachment of Black Friday. It seems clear that we all need a break, and a quiet little holiday to focus on the things that really matter to us.

The problem with setting extravagant expectations is that there’s so little to look forward to, as kids grow older. This has extended to life, in general. Where our parents could reasonably hope that with a good education and a decent work ethic, we’d have a better and more affluent life than they had, our kids don’t stand a chance. With an overpriced education, precious little work experience or time to obtain it, and over-the-top expectations, they’ll need a hefty double-whammy of opportunity and luck simply to attain the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, any time within the first or second decade of independent adulthood. We forgot to tell them about the “hard work over time” part, and they weren’t around yet, or old enough, to watch us struggle in the early stages of our careers.

Is it any wonder that “real life” is a shock to their systems? Is it any wonder the “special snowflakes” start to melt down? The only escape – the only place that can possibly live up to the hype – is in the imagination. And what ritual better stimulates the imagination, revs up the dopamine, than video games? Books would be great, but television and video games have set up expectations – and have not taught the value of patience and effort. Is it fair  to say, “Back in my day, our parents would kick us out at dawn and lock the door till dusk, saying ‘Go outside and play!'” when our kids have grown up with us afraid they’d be lost forever, kidnapped, molested, beaten, robbed, shot, or hit by careless drivers if they hung out in the park a mile or two from home or rode their bikes on neighborhood streets? Where neighbors call the cops to check out the “noisy kids playing” – and risk them being arrested or killed – or to arrest their parents for failing to supervise them? When we can see, on a map, where all the neighborhood sex offenders live among us? We’ve kept a generation or two home and fed them a steady diet of passive entertainment and carefully orchestrated extracurricular activities. They hardly know what to do with themselves, now – and they’re tired, too.

But we’ve told them they can be and do anything, and we’ve overcompensated for the confinement of childhood with treat bags and presents. Now we wonder Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy?

It’s not just the holidays we need to take down a notch.

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    One of the few advantages of being a disabled mom is that expectations never get a chance to build.

    They were forced many a time to do their own celebrations. I treasure the photos of what they came up with for Halloween costumes – a trip to the store was out of the question. I still smile when I use a brown plaid stadium blanket that my oldest had me sew a button and button thread loop on (still there) so he could use it as Sherlock Holmes’ cape.

    We developed the good traditions: you go shopping AFTER the holiday – and find all kinds of treats. They still head for the dollar store, or the local CVS for Easter candy late at night on Easter Sunday. And talk about the bargains and how much fun it is.

    Daughter gets to put up the tree exactly as she likes it. At each step, I did what was strictly necessary, fit it into the homeschooling, and we avoided the ‘real world.’

    Lest it sound too Little House, I felt tremendous guilt when I couldn’t do a lot of the things other mothers could. My husband did far more than his ‘fair’ share. But looking back, they are happy kids with a bunch of memories we all acquired by accident, and they think these are good traditions.

    I’m not going to tell them they somehow missed out.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I don’t think they did miss out. But you hit the nail on the head – parenting is full of self-imposed guilt trips, if we let ourselves buy into the notion that we have to keep up with the overachieving moms instead of saying, “Well, you do you – and God bless your pointy little head, you’re amazing. But I’m going to do ME, and bet that my kids wouldn’t know the difference if you promise not to tell them they’re missing out.” It sounds like you escaped the trap of overcompensating by being UNABLE to overcompensate, and it sounds like your kids are reaping the lifelong benefits of that.

      One year, I think my daughter was about three, I forgot to get stocking stuffers. There were the stockings, all hung up, and I had NOTHING to put in them. My husband had to work Christmas morning; his brother was visiting, and I got him to go with me to the only store that was open at midnight on Christmas Eve: QuikTrip. They had nothing “Christmasy,” and the only kid appropriate thing there, besides candy, was this awful pink plastic troll bottle with a straw. Garish thing. I bought it. Not my finest Christmas morning (not that there weren’t PRESENTS, just – not as much “planning” went into anything that year).

      I apologized to my daughter (who’s now 27) for that, just a few years ago. That, and the year we made popcorn and cranberry strands, ugly-ass dough ornaments (they were all gray, no matter how much paint we slapped on them), and construction paper chains.

      “But those were wonderful! I remember those! I loved those Christmases!” she sounded like she really meant it, too. I was stunned. I’d felt guilty for years for the lack of planning and effort (we threw that tree out, ornaments and all, a few days after Christmas – talk about the easiest post-Christmas tree-takedown EVER! 😉 ) And they were GOOD, happy memories.

      Moms, Dads, love your kids and stop wasting time on guilt. They feel the love, when you show it. They know what’s real and what’s compensation for the real. Don’t fall into the trap.

  2. Rasheed Hooda

    I was just talking with a friend yesterday about how we went into woods to explore and find all sorts of things, and use our imaginations to create the world we lived in.

    I was fortunate to pass some of that to both of mine.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I’m so glad. I’m not entirely sure I did (there’s that mommy-guilt, for not living up to the example my own parents set!), but I know they’ve turned out to be young adults I’m proud of and pleased to claim as my kids. 🙂

  3. Mia

    I kind of feel like a brat because I used to complain that every year my mom would buy me a new dress to wear on Easter Sunday. I was such a tomboy and hated to dress up.
    I wear dresses all the time now. And I still prefer for my mom to pick them out.

    • HollyJahangiri

      You’re not a brat, Mia. You are anything but a brat. I think you’ve turned out just fine.

  4. Mitch Mitchell

    Actually, Mom was the only one who kept thinking every holiday had to be something special… and mostly it came down to food, which was probably more my fault than anything else. I never really understood how much work it was for Mom to make cornbread dressing; it took hours of preparation to get it perfect. Meals at other holidays were fairly simple but Dad & I used to expect certain desserts for those holidays, and of course I always expected the same dessert for my birthday.

    In retrospect I should feel bad but I don’t. I was just a kid and if Mom had said just once “we eat what we eat”, we’d have been good with it. After all, I stopped wanting Christmas gifts after age 12… and they still bought them (only child thing lol).

    As for that school stuff… back in our day parents didn’t care, we didn’t care, the schools didn’t care. Valentines Day was special for everyone because all of us were tasked with bringing everyone a card, and those who didn’t bring cards didn’t get any; worked for me. 🙂

    • HollyJahangiri

      Holiday meals are special, Mitch. The “work” you mention was an act of love. As long as mom was able, and you and your dad appreciated and wanted those particular treats, it probably wasn’t the sort of expectation I’m talking about, here. Unless, of course, you’ve spent years making your wife feel inadequate by comparison.

      “Tasked with bringing everyone a card. ” Yep. But no one told everyone to be gracious about the chore. I never liked getting obligatory cards or participation points. In real life, you do get points just for waking up and breathing–you get to live another day. That’s enough. 🙂

  5. Patricia Stoltey

    My greatest memories of childhood Christmases revolve around the family activities — that’s when my dad would haul out the board games and play for hours.


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