Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Troubling Parenting Moment at the Airport

The little boy, who looked to be about two, darted away in a fit of giggles. His young mother, who seemed thoroughly worn out and exasperated, ran after him, grabbed him by the arm and said in a harsh whisper, "You must stand here!"

We were on line waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight. For those of you not familiar with the Southwest system, there are no assigned seats. Rather, when a passenger obtains a boarding pass, a number indicates a place in line. Then before boarding, passengers line up according to the number they have been given. It is a very well organized system, but doesn't necessarily work for a two-year-old.

I've been thinking a lot about what happened next. While I do not know anything about this mother-child pair, I have imagined many reasons why the situation unraveled as it did.

The above scene repeated itself two or three times. The mother had a companion, another young woman about her age, maybe a friend or her sister, who was fully absorbed with her phone for a few rounds of chasing before she looked up and said to the boy, "Do you want to watch a movie?" Immediately he stopped his darting and stood quietly looking at the phone, but the woman said, "You have to wait til we get on the plane." He screamed and ran off again. This time he threw himself on the ground in the middle of the two lines of people (interestingly right at my feet-perhaps he sensed a sympathetic observer.) At which point his mother said in a loud voice, "If you don't listen, all of these people are going to tell Santa you've been a bad boy!"

I was horrified, and might have even been tempted to intervene (probably not a good idea in the absence of frank abuse) but fortunately at that moment they began to board the plane.

So what went wrong? I start with the mother's perspective. Likely she was experiencing a flood of shame and humiliation, as parents of young children do when they "act out" in public. On every radio interview I've had, I am asked about the dreaded "supermarket scene," another place where a child must conform to the rules under the watchful eye of the general public.

The fact is that the "public eye" is generally either sympathetic or too involved in their own life to even notice. Yet shame pervades. In this situation it must have been particularly intense, as the mother passed this shame on to her son. She put the experience of humiliation directly in to him with her comment about Santa.

Next, I go on to the four aspects of holding a child in mind, as I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's Eyes

The first is to be curious about the meaning of behavior. I wonder if this boy had some difficulties processing sensory input. As I mention in a previous post, a recent study showed that sensory over-responsiveness occurs in 25% of cases of problem behavior. An airport is a very difficult place for a child with sensory processing problems. Or perhaps he had just had a difficult separation- an event that may precede a trip on a plane. Or he may simply have been tired or hungry.

The second component is empathy. His mother, likely because of her own distress(see step four) was particularly unempathic, not recognizing how even in the absence of the above possible stressors, standing still can be a challenge for a two-year-old.

The third component is regulating and containing behavior. The little boy likely felt very stressed by this out of control situation. He needed help containing his experience. The mother's companion was on the right track in offering the phone. He needed something that would help him to regulate himself. Reading a book, offering a movie or game, or even a snack, might have helped him to feel less out of control.

The last, and most difficult, is to manage your own distress. This mother might have been tired herself, might have been angry with her companion for being so unhelpful, or any countless number of feelings, in addition to the shame I describe above, that can get in the way of seeing things from your child's perspective. When a person is flooded with stress, the higher centers of the brain responsible for rational thought do not work well. Had she been thinking more clearly, it might have occurred to her that her companion could hold the place in line. She could have let her son run around before being confined to the plane. Likely the other passengers would have been fine with that.

It's a lot to think about for such a tiny moment. But it deserves this kind of attention, because repeated experiences of shaming are not good for a young child. Who says being a parent isn't the hardest job there is?


  1. I am the mother of a now 15 month old who is very "active" like the child you are reporting on in this blog. I would like to say that we are all human and with that comes enormous amounts of imperfection. Not knowing the culture of this woman, her background and how she was raised, I find your recount of this somewhat harsh. I am 37 years old and although I wouldn't intentionally attempt to shame my child to behave, I completely understand how a parent would be driven to this point. As you stated above, you don't know how her day went, her night, the previous night or her experience has been with this very active child. As new parents, we aren't given an instruction manual on how to deal appropriately when our child tantrums or is having difficulty. If we only have our own experiences to draw from, perhaps in her mind she was being kind. Perhaps in her history she was hit when she acted out. Children like mine and seemingly this young woman above are extremely challenging and unless you have a child who displays some of what you write about, you have absolutely no idea exactly how challenging it can be. Many people don't know what resources they have to help them in defining or diagnosing "processing disorders" or behavior difficulties their children might be experiencing. We must approach every situation with every parent and child as "they are doing the best that they can at that moment in time". It is easy for those of us watching to lay blame, speculate as to what the mother should have done differently, and assume we know what they are experiencing. The bottom line is we don't. As a physician, I would hope that before you try and diagnose someone (especially from a brief moment of observation) you would spend much more time and actually interact with the mother and child before dishing out a behavior management plan for her to follow. I agree that her use of shame is not going to get her any long term behavior modification, but it seems that she may not have the resources to know any different. This also could have been a great teaching moment for you as a physician to intervene in a kind way to ask the mom is she needed any help. Sometimes, it is the little things like a kind word from a stranger that can help us in moments of distress.

  2. Thanks for giving us this opportunity to reflect, Claudia! I am a PhD student studying social and emotional development, and I find your perspective very much in alignment with my own. I didn't find your description of this situation harsh at all. I actually had a similar experience recently watching a parent try to convince a small child to pose nicely for a Christmas picture by threatening to send him to bed (in the middle of a fun Christmas party!) if he didn't cooperate. Now that's the Christmas spirit...ho ho ho.

    I found this post very well thought out and helpful. As you wrote, being a parent is hard stuff! Tools like this blog that help parents to reflect critically on their own parenting are wonderful, because, as Tigerzmom pointed out, kiddos do not come with instruction manuals ;-)

    And of course parents aren't perfect. As the imperfect parent of an incredible four year old, I think what makes a parent great is the willingness to reflect, apologize, and learn from mistakes in order to grow as a person and build strong relationships with our kids.


  3. Claudia, if you are such a master at empathy then why on earth didn't you kindly offer to hold the mother's place in the queue so that she could help her child burn off some energy before the flight?
    You could easily have offered to help before the mother's nerves were frayed and helped them avoid the "horrifying" conclusion.
    Perhaps, next time, instead of reflecting on what others could do better, you should focus on what YOU could have done better. Maybe try writing an article focusing on ways that bystanders can help frazzled parents!!!

  4. The time has come for me to weigh in, as clearly this post has hit a nerve. To address the first issue, I did not intervene, other than with a sympathetic smile for the boy and mother, for exactly the reasons described in the first comment, namely that I did not know anything about this particular situation or family. In a clinical situation I would certainly want to learn many things about this family that I did not know. Seoond, I am not concerned with "diagnosis" but rather with understanding both the parent and the child's experience. And I am most certainly not "blaming the mother" The story is meant to illustrate a way to think about challenging situations in a way that takes into account both the parent and child perspective. And I very much appreciate the second comment about the importance of reflection and willingness to apologize when things go wrong. Children learn a great deal form these kinds of disruptions if they are repaired, and they are better able to handle themselves when they go out into the world where interactions are often filled with mismatches and miscommunications.