I think I am not the only parent who slightly dreads their children being given balloons at a party. This was especially true when mine were toddlers. I knew eventually the tears would come, either because of the loud bang of its bursting, or the disbelief that what had once been a beautiful brightly-coloured, round play-thing had suddenly been reduced to a limp rag. Usually both. I used to be sorely tempted to try to avoid the situation entirely, and not bring home balloons after parties, as I did get a bit fed up with the rigmarole, to be honest. But then I had an epiphany: balloons are often a child’s first introduction to mortality.
We all know children have to learn this lesson eventually: nothing lasts forever. But it’s a hard lesson to accept, whether you are a child or an adult. And nothing teaches it quite so simply or eloquently as a balloon. There is no escape from balloon grief! Either they are plucked in their prime with a dramatic “pop”, slowly deflate and wrinkle to a soft mass, or ascend directly to the heavens. Either way, the ephemeral life of a balloon is something every child has to face. And perhaps how we deal with our child’s disappointment may be telling about our own approach dealing with certain of life’s unpleasant inevitabilities.
I realised the way in which I reacted to my children’s distress may well affect how they cope with that concept in the future. My first impulse was denial and avoidance; let’s try not to have too many balloons, and prevent the upset. But then that denies children the pure, unadulterated joy of a maddeningly lightweight ticking-time-bomb-ball. Plus it turns you into a meanie. And, besides, you are really only delaying the lesson. Yes, it may all end in tears, but it’s mighty fun until then.
Another approach we can have as parents is to say “don’t worry, I’ll get you another balloon.” Bearing in mind my analogy, I’m not sure this is the best message to give! After all, balloon bereavement needs a little grieving time… I also think that it’s important for children to realise that they can have a lot of fun with something, and that it has to come to an end. I’m really not trying to be a spoilsport here, but I think we can make a rod for our own backs if we try to prevent the inevitable disappointment. Regularly providing an immediate replacement for the lost balloon doesn’t allow your child to be consoled some other way; a cuddle, a different toy, playing a game. Before you know it, they will be expecting you to resolve any disappointment and provide them with a substitute. They won’t learn how to cope with it another way.
As children grow this is a message that will have to be repeated in a variety of contexts – the end of a party, a broken toy, a good friend moving away. And, of course, that first introduction to death, whether it (hopefully) comes in the form of withered plants, dead insects, or the loss of a pet. The message remains the same, even if the degree of sadness may vary considerably. You can’t protect your children from unhappy events, or disappointing outcomes, but you can teach them how to handle them.
So perhaps what parents have to do is learn to accept our child’s reaction. They will have balloons. Those balloons will expire and your child will be upset. Just go with it, sympathise with them, explain the laws of balloons. And then try to distract them with something else. It is still just a balloon after all.