Q: My husband usually works on Sunday. But last week he had Sunday off. So we decided to take our four children, aged five to 12, to a local indoor amusement park. The kids were so excited when we told them about our plans. We waited until our two boys came home from yeshivah so we could all go together. By the time we got there, it was quite crowded, with long lines for the rides. And when it was time to go home everyone was tired, hungry and very disappointed. The oldest two complained they didn’t go on nearly enough rides and were angry we weren’t staying longer. The youngest two begged for nosh and were very unhappy with the small prizes they received for the game tickets they had won. On the way home, the kids were so kvetchy that my husband said he thought the whole outing was a big mistake.
I have mixed feelings about it. Do you feel there is something we could have done differently so that everyone would have come home in a better mood?
A: Family outings are wonderful opportunities for meaningful bonding and creating fond memories that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, however, they can also turn out as yours did — generating unpleasant memories which everyone would like to forget.
The key to avoiding the latter and achieving the former is to successfully manage everyone’s expectations in advance. When it comes to entertaining children, therefore, always apply the following formula: Disappointment equals the difference between expectation and reality. In other words, when children’s expectations are inflated, their disappointment is guaranteed. When their expectations are controlled and limited, their enjoyment and appreciation of any experience is dramatically increased. (The same hold true, by the way, for adults.)
How can parents control their children’s expectations? The answer is that they must spell them out in “b’Rochel, bitcha haketanah” (Bereishis 29:18) terms. Just as Yaakov Avinu tried to clarify his intentions to Lavan, so, too, must parents clearly articulate the parameters of an outing before the family leaves home.
Many parents object, complaining that the desired atmosphere of spontaneity is compromised. Some even go so far as to make comparisons to an army boot camp. “Why can’t we just play it by ear? That way we’ll all be more relaxed and chilled,” they argue.
My response to them is that such lack of forethought and structure leads to fiascos like the one you described in your letter. All children have wild imaginations. Unless parents apply the brakes, therefore, children’s expectations will fly out of control, setting the stage for bitter disappointment.
Returning to your question, I would recommend you take all the following steps next time to help you avoid the heartache of your Sunday debacle.
1) The time frame must be specified. Children, as well as many adults, lose all sense of time when they are having fun. Whenever you have to leave will feel too soon. Announcing in advance, therefore, exactly how long you plan to stay will help them to adjust when the time arrives. Say, “We must leave at 5 o’clock” or “We can stay for two-and-a-half hours.” Then, if you decide to stay longer, the children will see that as an unexpected bonus.
2) Clarify what will and will not be included. For example, how many rides will each child have? If you cannot determine that in advance, then set a limit on how many tickets will be purchased or how much money will be spent. Will souvenirs or store-bought refreshments be included? If so, how many will be bought or how much money will be allotted for that?
3) Spell out any other conditions. If behavioral restrictions will be imposed, let your children know ahead of time. For example: “No one is allowed to walk out without permission,” or “We all must stay together when we get to the park,” or “Each one of you will get to choose one ride. And the others may choose to join you or not.”
Furthermore, be sure to include what the consequences will be for failing to comply. For example: “If anyone starts to bite, kick or pull anyone else’s hair, we are going to leave immediately, whether or not you have each had your turn to choose a ride.”
4) Use the event to teach middos. You should not hope that children will know without being told how to react with proper derech eretz. Instead, tell them ahead of time so they will be properly prepared. For example: “And while we’re on the way home, I expect you all to say ‘Thank you’ to Tatty and me for giving you this treat.”
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.