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Pleasant Surprises

February 8, 2013 , , , , , , , , , ,

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Andrew Kensley, the Coloradoan

Last week while my wife was out of town, I took my daughters ice skating in Old Town and out for sushi. And since they’d been behaving well in Tanya’s absence and generally eating healthy food over the previous few days, I promised them ice cream.

“We love ice cream!” Ella, my 8-year-old, said. “Dad, you’re the best dad ever!”

My children are not alone in their use of superlatives. Sophia, my 5-year-old, often calls me her “best friend ever,” but also says the same thing about Tanya, Ella, and Lola, her stuffed bunny. Ella is equally effusive when she says she had “the best day of her entire life,” or calls a specific food the “best thing she’s ever eaten.” It’s fun to see my kids so enthusiastic.

I’ve noticed, though, that they tend to express those animated characterizations aloud only in certain situations. They don’t cheer wildly when I make fruit salad or convince them to bathe every now and then, even though those things are more beneficial in the long term. As we made our way to the ice cream shop, I wondered: how important are random, unexpected treats to overall happiness?

The meat and potatoes of parenting are in the routines of the daily grind. We make sure our kids sleep, do their homework, eat healthy foods and exercise. We teach them to be responsible, take care of their things and clean up after themselves. In theory, those basics are all they need for survival. There is no biological need for trips to Disneyworld or a triple decker sundae.

But humans don’t exist “in theory” only. Admit it: When you ditch the salad bar in favor of a greasy burger and a few beers, or stay out until 2 a.m. partying with your friends, you feel excited that you indulged. That’s because we crave pleasure, especially when we’re used to doing the sensible thing most of the time.

According to a 2001 article in “Neuroscience,” pleasant surprises lead to “marked stimulation in the brain’s pleasure centers,” which produce chemicals that make us happy. Since happiness tends to lead to more of the same, we would be wise to allow ourselves to be surprised every now and then. The promise and possibilities of rewards help us endure things like preparing our taxes and organizing that filthy garage.

Life success is built on the notion that if you work for five days, you get to play on the other two. Save for retirement every paycheck and you deserve to spend a month’s salary on a nice vacation once in a while. Rewards keep us engaged in the less exciting aspects of our lives, and kids are no exception. In fact, in a population that is constantly watching to make sure we’re paying attention, that kind of reassurance is crucial in their emotional development.

Back at home, I asked Ella if I was the best dad because of the ice cream. “No,” she said, and hugged me. “But it was delicious.”

Andrew Kensley is a writer, physical therapist, husband and father in Fort Collins. He welcomes your emails to



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