The other week we were at the airport returning to Belfast after a lovely weekend spent with my brother and sister-in-law in Cardiff. When we arrived at the terminal, we saw that the Belfast flight due out before ours was severely delayed, so we braced ourselves for a long night ahead with an already-tired 3 year old. Airports are fun places when you're 3. Stuff to climb on, space to run around, endless snack options, plenty of people to perform for. Not so much for adults; the waiting, the wanting-to-be-home-already, the anticipation of delays.
Levi has really come out of his shell since being at nursery. He is more chatty with others, warms up a little faster and has much more capacity for conversation. It's an incredible age (almost 4) to witness.
If you've ever flown with a small child, you will understand the anxiety that airports and the whole process of flying brings, but something different happened that night that was a bit of a parenting revelation for me.
We were called to board and sauntered our weary bodies down the queue. We watched as Levi chatted to the other passengers as we waited, weaving in and out of the line - up to the top and back down to us - hopping and racing, dancing and tiptoeing as he went. He was making his own fun. And we watched. We didn't hassle him to get back, to stop, to withhold his charm, we just let him be - listened to his over-tired chatter, answered his over-tired questions and allowed him to roam.
What struck me was the reaction of other passengers. They were cheered by his cheer; watching him with kind eyes. They engaged him and were playful, giving him chat and pulling funny faces. It was really quite lovely. I felt proud to be his mama.
As we settled into the short flight home I wondered what it would have been like if we had stepped in that night. What it would have been like if we had apologised to the people in the line, if we had rolled our eyes or hurried him back to where we were? I wonder what their reaction to him would have been if we had held him back, tried to keep him quiet or harnessed his energy. Would they have been as patient, engaging or kind? Probably not.
It really hit home that how people react to our kids is largely down to how we react to our kids. I really believe that we set the tone for how other people perceive our children and this is a hugely powerful idea. If people see us agitated by them, or can sense that we find them to be a nuisance, so will they. If our energy towards them is flippant or resistant, we are inviting people to also see our kids in this way. We confirm the often kid-negative attitudes of society and that's not okay.
In turn, if we set a tone of empathy, playfulness and autonomy - we lead by example - both to our children and the people in their lives - even strangers in an airport.
We teach people how to treat our kids by how we treat our kids.
The importance of this is that when we parent our kids respectfully in public, it contributes to a culture. Our reactions and interactions state clearly that children are important, fully-human, and deserving of the same physical and emotional respect that we expect of each other as adults. Isn't this a culture that we desperately need; one where everyone is valued, seen and heard?
As simple as it sounds, it has been a huge challenge to me. Maybe it's because as parents it seems we are all hard-wired to want our children to 'behave' when we're out, worried that their behaviour is a reflection on us, but in reality the true reflection of us is our reaction to them. We don't have to prove anything to anyone, but we can show a different way. These times are nothing for us to be afraid of, they are our opportunity to model something to our kids and to each other: tolerance, understanding and empathy. There's a freedom in that mindset for me, a confidence that I am cultivating.
Challenging? Yes. Getting it wrong a bunch of the time? Absolutely. Important? Entirely.