The Character Movement

Put Your Own Mask on First

A few years ago, I was on an airplane with my four-year-old daughter, Tess. She was in the seat next to me when it happened: the oxygen masks dropped down. Over the loudspeaker, the captain assured us we were safe, but that the plane had temporarily lost cabin pressure and that – for our safety – we were to put on oxygen masks. The pilot then reminded us to secure our own mask before assisting anyone else with his or her mask.

I’ve been on an airplane hundreds of times, so I’ve heard the safety presentation hundreds of times. My logical mind knew exactly what the captain was talking about. I even knew the rationale – if I were to pass out from a lack of oxygen, then I wouldn’t be able to help my kid. By all accounts, the right thing to do was to help myself before I even thought about helping Tess.

Yet, my gut was telling me a different story. Or, perhaps, yelling a different story would be a better way to put it. Every instinct in my body was screaming at me to put Tess’s oxygen mask on before securing my own. But I fought this instinct, put on my mask and then turned to help Tess.

Once both of us were taken care of, I was able to relax and see — with total clarity — how right the captain had been. As a parent, when you are faced with an emergency situation, you have to make sure you’re okay before you can make sure your kids are okay.

I tell this anecdote because parents who want my opinion on the debate over what constitutes “overscheduling” for their child often approach me. If you were to search the internet for this topic, you’d find everything from spirited defenses of raising a kid who can compete in a cut-throat, 24/7 global economy to equally spirited attacks on a parenting culture run amok. People want to know if I side with the “Tiger Moms” or the parents who are raising “Free Range Kids.”

My response is to put the question back on them. While I’m in favor of going out into the world and seeking advice, you (and only you) know what your values are. You, and only you, can sit down with your kids and ask them how they feel about their schedule. You, and only you, know if the pace of your life is sustainable.

You have to put our own mask on first. By doing this, you can step back and see if the life you’re living is good for everyone in the family. If you’re doing too much and everyone is miserable, then it’s time for a change. If there isn’t enough structure and the kids are confused, then it’s also time for a change. I believe in consulting outsiders and experts, but I also know that we, as parents, have more answers than we often give ourselves credit for having.

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