Open Letter to my Fellow Travelers

To the woman at LAX (LA Airport) who had the time to give me the evil eye–multiple times–while I was trying to catch my wayward two year old, manage my 5 and 7 year old children, our carry on luggage and the stroller, I’m going to publicly chastise you, as you did me.

I hope that this letter does not find you in the midst of a crisis, surrounded by strangers, responsible for keeping three children alive, un-kidnapped, and delivered to their next flight on time. I do not want to exacerbate your struggles, endanger your children by distracting you or add to your stress by shaming you when you are clearly, already struggling.
That doesn’t help anyone.

You think you care about the safety of my child, and you believe that gives you liberty to judge me. But if you truly care about my children 

HELP ME.

Since you see the danger of a lone toddler nearing an elevator in a crowded airport, help me catch that toddler. Your feet work as well as your mouth, since you have kept pace with me for 20 yards, glaring at me. Use your feet. You are much closer to the baby than I am. You have less luggage and no extra kids. Go stand in front of that elevator. My five and seven year old children were following my instructions to catch the little runaway. You heard those instructions.

GO HELP THEM.

I needed reinforcements and you gave me another enemy.

You chastised me for talking on my cell phone while my toddler was running loose in the crowded terminal. You judged me to be a “distracted” parent taking insufficient care of my child. You don’t know the rest of the story.

I was calling in reinforcements. I looked down and the baby was gone. I hoped the two year old might have climbed out of her stroller to follow her father, who had gone to track down our missing luggage. So, I called him and found out she was not with him. (Breathe don’t panic!) We had to track down a toddler gone AWOL. (Panic won’t help…) I enlisted my older kids, “We’ve got to find Abigail.”

They spread out, and one of them saw the little fugitive running back in from the right. Her face said, “I’m playing tag, you’re it.” Brother and sister can dart through the crowd faster than me, and, sure enough, she ran. They’ll run her down, though. She’s as good as caught. I tell my husband–so he can breathe too.

And that’s where we were when you shamed me for talking with my one adult ally in this whole huge airport.

Whether you thought I wasn’t taking the situation seriously or you felt afraid to help, or you just felt entitled to judge me, your assumptions were wrong. Your words were cruel and dangerous. By repeatedly distracting me, you increased the danger to my kids. You did not help. You hindered.

You judged me for being distracted. Then you distracted me to render that judgment.

Now that we are safely home, I am speaking up on my own behalf. I am speaking up to defend other parents, in other settings who also do not deserve to be shamed for the misbehavior of their charges.

I am speaking up to ask for help.

I am asking you for help.

If you have read this far, I thank you for listening. On behalf of all parents, I implore you for help.  Please become an ally. Please take our side.
Please help us keep our kids safe.

Be a hero.

My kids are pretty awesome, and I happen to know that I am a pretty darn good parent. But parenting is hard, and short of using leg irons, it’s actually impossible for one person to watch three people if they run in three directions. When you think, “She should keep a better watch on those kids” you have a choice. You see the risk, you can choose to take action to help–or you can do the easy thing and pass judgment.

I suspect that some of us judge parents because we feel powerless to do anything else. We are afraid to overstep our authority, be accused of attempted child molestation or in some way be shamed ourselves for doing something socially unusual. It takes courage to step in to help. Not many people do it.

In coming up with ideas of how to help, I probably have an advantage. Before I became a full-time mommy, I was a professional therapist. People paid me to intervene with their kids, so I feel pretty confident doing so. In order to empower you to help, I want to give you a few of my go-to methods.

Perhaps they will inspire your own ideas the next time you see a child straying into the path of danger.

  • Bodily step in front of a run away toddler. Get in their path. Simply by being a stranger, you are likely to scare the toddler into pausing- or possibly running back to Mama. Score! Mission accomplished. You are a hero! Lots of people step out of the way of a runaway child. If you think about it, that doesn’t make sense. Why would you step out of the way of a toddler obviously pursued by a parent? Do you want them to get into the street? I think our instinct must be to be polite, or to not get involved, but you are already involved. You see it. Use your feet. Be a hero.
  • Catch the eye of a child you are worried about. This is for a child whose behavior or location concerns you- but you don’t see a chase in progress. Talk to them. Ask, “Where is your mommy?” Most toddlers are trained and willing to point to mommy. They like mommy, even if they are hiding from her right now. Or tell an older child, “I think your mom is looking for you.” Direct the child back into the influence of their parent. This works partly because you have stranger-danger power and partly because you are supporting mom’s authority. You are not going to get in trouble for talking to a child in a public place. Most kids find interaction with a stranger pretty novel and exciting, so you can often keep a kid engaged and in one spot long enough for their parent to find them. However, because there really are bad people in the world, don’t take a child anywhere. We are all trying to teach our kids to never go places with a stranger. They should never leave anywhere with a stranger, even a truly helpful one. Unless you are wearing a police or firefighter uniform or other safe-person super-suit, limit your intervention to guarding the child until mom shows up. That’s pretty heroic.
  • Do you see an older child doing something dangerous? Does it make you sweat and you have to do something? I have used this strategy to curb dangerous play on playgrounds. Make sure you use your kind voice though; it can backfire if your voice is mean. With your kind voice, say, describe how you feel. “Gosh, I feel nervous watching you (climbing that railing, standing on that wall, etc.)” Most kids will get down, just because you are a stranger. Invoking parental authority can help too, “Does your mother know you are [doing that]? Do you think it would be okay with her?” Then listen to the child. You can’t restrict their screen time so they will often be honest with you. They may actually be allowed to walk across the top of the monkey bars. Perhaps they are in the junior circus. Remember you don’t know these kids. You have tried, and been kind. That’s heroic.
  • It often works to simply ask kids to behave differently. I have said, “Hi, would you do me a favor and step back from that ledge? It really scares me that you might fall. Or “could you please wait a minute until the baby gets all the way off the slide. I’m afraid you might accidentally hurt her.” Or even, “Would you please put your trash in the can instead of littering it on the ground?” I bet every parent has told their kid to throw out their trash a million times. But not many kids have a complete stranger ask them, nicely, to do it. Sometimes they will do it, sometimes not—but when you direct your request to the child- the child learns that others notice his or her behavior. It’s not just mom and dad. Compare that to asking mom to tell her child to put the trash in the can.   If you talk to mom, your comments will probably shame her. And that makes it harder to parent, both because it’s hard to think when you feel ashamed and because the child just saw the shaming, and shamed people lose social authority. You damage her authority by subtly pointing out that she is a bad parent. I know that’s not what you meant to do, but you did. Instead, be a hero. Think of yourself as mom’s ally. Trust that she has not told her kids they are allowed to do that obviously bad or dangerous behavior.   It is the child’s behavior that is bothering you. So kindly ask the child to be responsible for it.

A note of caution here, this is the most likely to backfire thing on this list. It’s really easy to accidentally go too far and sound mean or shaming. I’m suggesting it because you are really bothered by the behavior of the child and are considering giving stank eyes to mom. It’s more honest to direct your complaint to the child. And, more risky too. Mom might get mad at you if you are seen as attacking her child. There is risk in trying to be a hero. The trick is to be kind. To ask. And then to let it go. If mom hears a kind request, she actually has an opening to say, “Kiddo, the hero is right, please go do what he just asked you to do.”   Score. Remember the real goal here is to help support a parent in their really hard job.

  • This last technique is one I use when a group of children are behaving badly together.   They may be fighting or engaged in a dangerous type of play, either way, you see someone about to get hurt, but the parents are not yet intervening. Or perhaps, like me, you are parent to one of the children, but the others are strangers to you. Either way, some of these are not your kids, but you don’t want any of them to be hurt.   This is really just the last two ideas- but used with a group. The goal is to engage the group in conversation with you- which will automatically alter their other dangerous behavior.   For example: “Gosh, what is everyone fighting about?” Even if you can’t punish anyone, you are an adult. Most kids will happily tattle on their peers to any older person who will listen. And suddenly, they aren’t fighting with each other anymore. They are talking to you. You can choose what role you take in the conversation, either to try to provide a little wisdom, call in the parents or just change the subject- but no matter what, if the group is chatting with you, they are not hitting each other.   Same thing works for dangerous play. Usually one of my kids is involved in it, but I have walked up on groups to discover that my kids were not involved, and felt the need to do something anyway. I’m thinking here of kids playing King of the Mountain at the top of a ten foot slide and similar life threatening games. Even strange adults can ask, “Hey, what game are we playing here.” Suddenly you have stopped the game. If you have a kind and curious voice, someone will tell you. “Well, it looks really dangerous to me.” You could explain. “I think if we push each other on the slide, someone could fall and get really hurt.” Engage the group’s imagination. “What do you think would happen if one of your friends fell from way up here?” By now, the spontaneity of the game has probably stopped. (Score) And you can go a step further if you want and ask them to play a different game. If you have been chatting with a spontaneous playground group for a couple of minutes, you are part of it now. You can suggest a different game. “Does anyone want to play tag? I’m it…”

You sure are, it. You are a hero.

To my fellow travelers in LAX- and all around this wide world of ours, I ask you to please become heroes for me and my kids. It just takes a little bit of effort to help out a whole lot. None of us can do this task of raising children alone. We need reinforcements.

I thank you for every time you try to help. I am truly grateful.

For the airplane stewardess who isn’t allowed to give medicine to a parent for their sick baby, but can ask me if I have any medicine I am willing to share with her. Thank you for being creative and finding a way to be a hero.

For the twenty-something party go-er who followed my advice to “don’t get out of her way” and stepped in front of my toddler before she ran off the sidewalk. Thank you for being a hero. That car did not run her over.

To the tour guide who looked at my child and asked him to move back to where he was supposed to be, thank you for being a hero. He came back to me and I was able to remind him of the rules now that he was a tiny bit embarrassed- and actually listening.

To the women who asked me if my kids could have food and drink- where they could not hear, thank you. You are heroes. One of you had a food they could not eat and no one felt bad when I said no, and another had a food they could drink, and actually needed. You both made our trip better.

To the airport security guard who walked toward my child struggling to get his luggage on the first step of the escalator, Thank you. You are a hero. The escalator carried me away before I could thank you. But I saw that you had my back. You would have stood with my kid while I came back down for him if we had needed it.

To the customs agents and security personnel who helped us go to the short lines with our three exhausted children. Thank you. You are heroes. You can’t violate your rules, so I truly appreciate you doing what was in your power to make the process easier on our kids and on us.

To everyone who threw us smiles and told us our misbehaving kiddos were adorable. To those who noticed and mentioned they were well behaved when they were. To those who had conversations with them and helped them feel like the world is full of interesting, kind people. Thank you. You are heroes. You make it easier to parent. You warm our hearts. You make our world brighter.   You help me bring up children who will become like you.

You prove to me that you do care about my kids. Your actions show your heart and you make it more wonderful to live in this great wide world we all travel in.

Thank you.

Megan Brightwell

 

 

2 thoughts on “Open Letter to my Fellow Travelers”

  1. Dear sweet mama, I had twins and had to travel alone with them cross country by plane before they turned two. So after that trip, I bought toddler harnesses. Yep, I leashed my toddlers like dogs. And it worked!

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