Children Need You to Breathe

Last night, I took Kade to a local gym for his weekly tumbling class. He loves everything about going - the instructors, the activities, the exercise, and yes, the structure. The most important thing for me is watching him enjoy himself as he throws all of his attention and energy into learning and working. It is a joy to behold.

The only really bad part is that this weekly class is one of our few forays into the world of traditional parenting. Some nights, it is wonderful: parents fully engaged with their children, no yelling or threatening, simple play and joy for the sake of play and joy with no expectations or demands. For such kids, and on such nights, you can see how much the kids enjoy themselves and how free they are.

Last night, however, was one of the bad ones.

There was a mom who was dressed like she had just come from work, with her power suit and Blackberry and ear piece. She had a daughter who was in the class before ours, and her son was in Kade's class. While we were waiting for the previous class to finish up, her son was having a hard time waiting for his class to start, and his mom was having a hard time with his hard time. "Sit down", she said, "and behave like you've been taught." Of course, that phrase and others she used, while she typed away on her Blackberry, only served to ratchet up her son's stress.

As I sat and watched, I was interested in a couple of things:

  • Mom brought something to play with (her Blackberry) but there was nothing for her son to do.
  • Mom got up and walked around while she was on her phone, but spoke sternly to her son whenever he got up out of his seat.
  • Mom even brought a banana to eat, but prohibited her son from eating the box of Nerds he brought along because it would "ruin his appetite for dinner."

Personally, I did not see any of his demands or needs - to get up and walk around, the have something to play with, to have something to eat - as being all that much out of bounds. But his mom did, and with each "no" or "sit back down and wait" I could feel this young man's stress level rising.

When the previous class was done, his adorable little sister came skipping out, grabbed his box of Nerds, poured half of them into her mouth, and accidentally spilled the rest of them on the floor.

The boy, as you might imagine, was apoplectic; but the mom, as you might imagine, was dismissive of his concerns and sent him into class with a motivating "Now, behave!" When he got into class, he had a hard time sitting still, following instruction, or paying attention. Most critically, he was visibly upset and not having fun: he came out of class several times crying, with his mom saying things like "Get back in there or I'm grounding you from seeing your friends for at least a week!" or "Let's see how you like when I take away some of your Pokemon." With nothing to motivate him but the threat of punishment, he returned to the class and made the best situation out of it that his little brain and heart could manage.

And his sister? Lovingly snuggled in mom's arms, playing with mom's Blackberry, deep in play and engaged conversation.

It was easy for me to dismiss this lady as a terrible parent, rage against her, and move along; after all, her behavior, the way she handled the situation, simply disgusted me in so many ways. That said, I really have no idea what preceded this event minutes, hours, days, or weeks ago. I have no real idea of what kind of parent she is at all. Maybe her son has needs that she does not know how to fulfill. Maybe the structure of the class, combined with the mom's expectations and the structure of his school day, was simply too much for him to handle. There could be a number of reasons why this played out as it did. To be sure, there's no real excuse for it - but there could be reasons. I simply do not know.

What I do know is that this young man needed something different than what he got. In the heat of the moment - whether that heat was real or merely contrived - his mother was unable or unwilling to step back, take a breath, and consider the needs of her child.

Scott Noelle once wrote something that has stuck with me ever since. To paraphrase:

When faced with a stressful situation with your child, do what the airlines advise you to do every time you fly - put on your own oxygen mask first, then put on your child's.

I love that thought. Ostensibly, adults are better able to deal with difficult situations than children are. Many children may not yet be equipped with the perspective or experience necessary to make rational choices in every situation. Certainly, they are capable of and often exhibit the capacity to make amazingly positive choices in difficult situations. But by doing so they provide us with a false sense of security; because they navigated a challenge well once, we begin to believe that they need less support than they really do. This can sometimes lead us leave them alone to navigate more often than they are able.

That's exactly what happened to this young man last night. He was left alone to entertain himself, fend for himself, rationalize his lack of food, and navigate the challenges of structure and rules when he was feeling angry and uncertain. That is hard to do for adults, let alone children. If his mom had been able to put her own oxygen mask on first - to take a step back, clear her mind, take a breath, and think in context from a place of calm rationality - she would have been better equipped to help her child deal with what he was feeling. She did it with her daughter, after all; once her son went to class and she put down her Blackberry, she was much better and more calm.

I don't exactly know how this story ends. The young man came out of class with a smile on his face, got a high five from mom, and toddled off happily to the rest of his evening. It appeared to me that time away from each other helped calm things down a bit and reset the mood, which I was very grateful for. But while we can save these situations one by one with time and apologies, the hurt and pain can build up over time until no amount of requests for a "do-over" and no amount of make-up activities can lead the child to welcome you back with open arms. For this family, I hope it's not too late. Even though it might have turned out okay for the moment, I wish she had been able to find and don her own oxygen mask first. I hope she finds it next time.


  1. "I hope she finds it next time." me too, Jeff, me too!

  2. Jeff, do you ever SAY anything in these situations? Offer to help out in some way? It breaks my heart to stand idly by when I witness something like this, and I always wish after the fact that I could have done something to help. I don't want to make it worse for the child, but sometimes I feel ready to burst with the knowledge that there is a more loving way.

  3. What a great post. I see this situation often, especially during my childrens sporting activities.

  4. Hi,Jeff stuff like this stings my entire being. I have to put some protective bubble around me. Something similar happened at the museum while we were there last week or the week before. Very stressed out mom yelling a her children. I finally stepped in and offered help. I couldn't take it anymore and my 7 yr old was crying b.c she couldn't take it anymore. So we both helped and it was received by the mom. here is the link if you want to read it.

  5. Anonymous, check out Natalie's post as well as this one by Ronnie Maier: