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The Roller Coaster or Merry-Go-Round?

Prior to having kids, my husband and I watched a movie called Parenthood. This 1989 film produced by Ron Howard was billed as a comedy, yet portrayed the reality of family life as well as any drama I’ve ever seen.

Which brings me to today’s Moment.

One of the four parenting stories features a middle-aged father named Gil, played by Steve Martin. Gil has a difficult relationship with his own father, so he strives to be Super Dad to his three kids. However, when his oldest son’s erratic behavior threatens to change his school placement to special ed classes, Gil is frantic. Add to that his wife’s unplanned fourth pregnancy and work pressures, the guy is out of his mind with worry. Here are my favorite clips from the movie, when Grandma shares her words of wisdom and Gil finally gets their meaning:

In case you can’t access the video or want the short version…

[Gil has been complaining about his complicated life; Grandma wanders into the room] Grandma: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Gil: Oh? Grandma: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! Gil: What a great story. Grandma: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

I like the merry-go-round. It’s pleasant, safe, and predictable. When our daughter was little, we’d take her on the one at Disney’s Magic Kingdom and she would smile and wave each time she passed by. Life was good. Life was simple.

Routine is our merry-go-round. We get up, send the kids off to school, do our work, the kids return home for dinner, we help with homework, watch tv, and go to bed. Then we do it all over again the next day. I enjoy routine; I like doing laundry and keeping to a schedule. Our son, being on the autism spectrum, craves routine–although it often constrains him (and us).

There’s something to be said for breaking out of the ordinary and taking a risk. It keeps us fresh, ready for anything life swings at us. It clears the cobwebs from our brains and exercises our imagination.

Our son’s first roller coaster ride!

Our daughter graduated from the merry-go-round and was a roller coaster pro by the time her brother was born.

Life for my family changed drastically with his autism diagnosis. Five years and hundreds of ABA therapy hours later, we took a family outing to an amusement park. This was a big deal, driving hours away from home and everything familiar. We had prepared our son with photos and talks about what to expect at Sesame Place, and he knew he was going to see Elmo, his favorite character, but it could go either way. New experiences often triggered extreme anxiety for him and tantrums could ensue. Luckily, the morning at the park was a huge success. He enjoyed it all–the water rides, the characters, the shows, the food, and the shops.

Then we saw the kiddie roller coaster. How I wanted my son to share our love of thrill rides! Should we push our luck? Heck, yeah. How would we know if he liked it if we never tried? We waited with bated breath to learn if our second-born would relish or fear what the rest of us in the family adored.


By the second dip of the tiny coaster, his eyes lit up and he wore a grin the size of his face.

Since that magical day, we’ve enjoyed the mega coasters at Great Adventure in New Jersey and those at Disney World and Universal as a family. We even brave the Tower of Terror at MGM Disney in Orlando on occasion.

I’ve witnessed a positive change in our son after each of these adventures. He becomes more emotionally connected and animated afterwards, the results lasting weeks or months. Other parents of children on the ASD spectrum have noted similar responses from their kids, including gains in language and learning after trips to places such as Disney.

Like Gil in Parenthood, I’ve learned life has a way of shaking us silly with its unexpected twists and turns. We can learn to hold on, savor the wind as it whips through our hair, and dare to try as we plunge into the next adventure. We can choose to keep with the status quo and get satisfaction out of the little things. Or maybe, just maybe, we can embrace both, being responsible when necessary, unbridled when possible in order to grow–whether as parents or individuals. What do you think?

Do you prefer the merry-go-round or roller coaster?

23 comments on “The Roller Coaster or Merry-Go-Round?

  1. What a profound question… I have to admit, there is a time to enjoy BOTH rides in my life. I love the turmoil of a roller coaster ride when it brings good things like book contracts at the end of the ride…. But after losing my mother, the safety and predictability of a nice merry-go-round ride cannot be underappreciated.

    But… and this is a big BUT…. I know my mom died with a ton of regrets. Like the Parenthood scene you mentioned, I suppose her whole life was a merry-go-round when what she really wanted was the Lightning Loops.

    Gah! I am off to buy tickets to Great Adventure.. 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Patty. I’m sorry for the loss of your mom.

      I appreciate your desire for calm after your turbulent year. I too, lost my mother and other loved ones, far too young. Perhaps that has shaped my urge to experience as much as I can and take risks before it’s also my time to move on. As you know all too well, life is precious and fleeting. There are lessons your mother will continue to teach you, long after she has passed from this world. And I believe that living life to its fullest will be one of them.

      What a blessing your Mom lived to see you become a published author!

  2. This is a deep question. Sometimes I don’t mind the roller coaster ride. It can be exciting, and the fun of waiting to see what’s around the bend is great. And yet, I like a safe routine. I like knowing how my week/month will flesh out. But I already have a lot of regrets in my life, and I don’t want my writing journey to be one of them. I’m trying to embrace the roller coaster!

    1. I love my schedule too, Stacy, but I’ve learned to branch out and seek the novel as I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin. I’m sorry you have regrets in life. The good news is it’s not too late to start. You’ve taken a huge step toward fulfilling one of your dreams by writing. You can do it, and we’re all here to cheer you on!

  3. The roller coaster is the only way to go for me. I remember when I was a kid and really afraid of the big coasters. I would close my eyes for most of the ride, and that’s only if you could get me on. I have since graduated to the big boy rides, most of them that is, and really enjoy riding them with my boys. My wife on the other hand will ride the tamer rides with us.

    I will say that I think that these types of rides or anything similar triggers brain activity in everyone. It is not something that we do everyday. Its daring, challenging and we feel a sense of accomplishment we when get done. Why else would we run to get back in line to do it all over again.

    1. I conquered the roller coasters later in childhood, too, Steve. As an adult, I feel like my poor brain is jostled a bit much on rides like the Space Mountain coaster at Disney World. But I can’t resist the thrill. LOL

      Thanks for commenting, and be sure to check back next week to see if you won. 🙂

  4. OK, I will take the plunge and respond to a blogger.
    Having a child who is also on the Autism spectrum I too have explored the roller coaster of life. At Sesame we first tried the Rubber Duckie plunge, figuring if it had water he would love it, and he did. Unfortunately he has now grown to enjoy even the biggest wildest rides at Great Adventure, which my stomach can’t take anymore, but I endure flipping a coin with my husband to see who gets to go on with him next. The best so far has been Dorney Park last summer, because we again got to explore thrill rides with water.
    Not sure if these rides do anything for his brain but the excitement and adrenaline rush that we all feel, is felt by him also! The beaming pride that he did it, shines from his face powering even the most exhausting of days to keep me going for more. Our next big adventure is white water rafting, but he isn’t the best swimmer so my mommy senses are saying no, but my adventure to have him try everything is saying yes.

    1. Welcome, Jennifer! I’m always thrilled to meet and talk with my blog readers, and am especially fond of fellow ASD moms. We live the roller coaster, alright.

      Wow, whitewater rafting! As long as everyone wears their life vest and you aren’t rafting down a waterfall, sounds great to me. I’d love to hear all about your adventure. Our son is a little fish in the water, but he hates to get splashed outside of the water. He enjoys kayaking with his dad on our local lake, though.

      Be sure to check back next week to see if you won this week’s prize. 🙂

  5. Life is a roller coaster. I am sure everyone would prefer to simply go around and never have to deal with lifes downs. I prefer the roller coaster because you get to experience the incredible highs, be they your own, or better yet the highs of people you love. Without the lows we never grow, never get closer to God and those who really love us, and never really are grateful for the highs we are fortunate to experience.

    1. Well said, Jeff. I especially like the part where you say, “Without the lows we never grow, never get closer to God and those who really love us.” I believe our appreciation for the simple joys of life stem from the lows we’ve lived. Have a happy week, my friend.

  6. Though I know it isn’t really my choice, having triplets, finding they are all on the autism spectrum (with completely different symptoms), and then all having severe life-threatening allergies (me, too!), I think I’ve had my fill of the roller coaster! I would like to experience a little merry-go-round for at least a little while.

    1. Hi Wendi. Too much of anything is bad for us, and I would say that applies to the roller coaster of challenges life has handed you. I pray you also receive your share of blessings, in the smiles and accomplishments of your children and the simple joys of life. I’m sending “merry-go-round” wishes your way!

      I hope you have peaceful, just-for-you moments this week, too. 🙂

  7. I am such a chicken when it comes to roller coasters, so I’m going to have to go with Merry-go-rounds. Never got why ppl were thrilled with being scared outta their minds but differents strokes for differents folks, right? Parenthood has always been an all time classic for me. And it’s interesting seeing @ different stages of my life what resonates with me during that time. Hmm, I couldn’t say if the ride would stimulate activity in the brain. Although, I don’t see why not. Even if it didn’t pathologically, I think it’s great exposure in the end of the day 😉

    1. Funny you should say that about roller coasters. That’s what I’ve often said about people who pay to see horror films. I find real life scary enough: I want to laugh when I watch a movie. I don’t know about thrill rides’ effect on the brain. Maybe my neuroscience major daughter can research that one further. Have a terrific week, Tuere. 🙂

  8. I loved roller coasters when I was younger. Now I prefer to watch others ride them and remember how it felt. I guess that’s the way of life. It’s easier to ride the ups and downs of life when you’re younger. As you age, you look for the routine, predictable days more often. I, and I assume most people, get used to making the adjustment for the bumps and the dips, the high times and the lows over a lifetime.
    As for autistic children, I think that anything that will offer them some stimulation outside of their private world is a good thing. They are so intelligent that, when they find a way to connect with the big world, they can learn a great deal from it.

    1. Hi Marcia. Thanks for your perspective on my question. I suppose I may be unusual. As I age, I become more fearless.I do find that I’m more patient and less likely to rush than I did as a younger woman.

      Thanks for your kind words about the intelligence of people with autism. Theirs isn’t always as easy to spot, but it’s there just the same.

      Have a terrific week!

  9. I like both though I’ve never been on any of the really intense newer roller coasters. And I have to admit that when my husband and I used to go on the Merry-go-rounds we’d play a game where we’d switch horses without touching the platform and this had to be done before it completed one rotation starting at the attendant. (Had to add a little excitement to it. : ) )

    I think thrills, big and small, help to stimulate all minds and bring about positive responses in just about everyone. From white water rafting to simple canoeing to sky diving to learning something new like a recipe all these help to stimulate our brains and that’s not a bad thing.

  10. I absolutely love roller coasters — the scarier and faster, the better. In real life, though, I am a little more risk-adverse. Perhaps I’d say it this way: I want to be on the roller coaster, but I want the safety strap and bar positioned well so that I know I’m safe. Great post!

    Having kids = roller coaster.

    1. That’s why I shudder at the thought of local fair rides. I’d much rather take a chance on theme park rides–with their stringent safety features and tests.

      LOL No math equation ever rang more true. 🙂

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