I want to share an experience I had at the LaGuardia airport in New York City when flying with my 19 year-old-son last week. It’s an interesting look at boundaries, letting our kids handle things, and stepping in when necessary.
We had arrived at the airport just before 7am on a Tuesday morning, and were in the line for the security check point. There was already one long line and the person checking our tickets told us to go start a new line. We were queued up, waiting our turn from the single agent. A woman in the longer line kept moving up to the security agent as if it was her turn, and the agent had to tell her more than once to wait behind the line until she was called. She was fine with it and just returned to wait, she just seemed a little confused.
We were called up to the agent before the other woman, and walked up to present our documents. I handed her our tickets and IDs. About that time, an older man walked right up to my son. He wasn’t even next in line, so he had apparently walked up from the back.
The man said in a Clint Eastwood tone of voice, “I don’t know who you think you are, but the line starts behind me.” At first, I was confused and wasn’t sure what was happening. As he continued to talk, he started swearing and moved within inches of my son’s face. I quickly realized that this wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t funny. He continued to insult my son, who was responding back to his accusations. My son was fairly calm responding to this man, saying that he was only doing what they told him to do. My son is 6’4” tall and this man was just a little bit shorter than he was. I’m not sure what he was thinking yelling at my son, but apparently this kind of bullying has worked for him in the past.
Meanwhile, the agent repeatedly told the man to get back in line, and he ignored her. As it continued, I could feel this man getting more upset. He was continuing to yell at my son, and that wasn’t ok. I turned to the man and said very firmly, “Back down.” I paused and looked at him. I could see that he didn’t know what to do with me. He was fine confronting my son, but something in him wasn’t ok with yelling at a woman. I could see that in his eyes. I said, “Thank you,” in the same firm voice and turned back to the gate agent. The man walked away and returned to the line.
I don’t know what happened to him after that.
I don’t know if he was taken to a little room where they talked to him about why rage at an airport isn’t ok. We didn’t see him on the other side of security, so I’m hoping he didn’t get on a plane at all.
When we were on the other side of the agent, emptying our bags of laptops and taking off our shoes, another passenger came up to both of us and said, “Wow! That was crazy! I can’t believe that guy. He needed to plan more time to get to his flight or something!” Everyone, it seemed, was just in disbelief at what had just happened.
After we had finished going through security and had reassembled our bags, my son and I sat down and talked about what had happened. I talked about my experience of it, what I saw, and encouraged him to talk about it, too. We shared our observations, our disbelief that it actually happened to us, and our thankfulness that the man had backed down.
I felt proud of my son.
He was able to hold a boundary with this complete stranger. He didn’t back down, but he didn’t fight him, either. He kept an even tone of voice and maintained eye contact with this man who was so angry. He didn’t touch him or provoke him further. And I gave him a little space to handle it, to see what he would do. He’s an adult now and he doesn’t need his mother rescuing him.
When it seemed like it had gone on long enough, I stepped in and was firm about the boundary. It wasn’t ok that he was yelling at my son. It wasn’t ok that he was out of line and harassing us. And it wasn’t ok that none of the airport security staff came to help the security agent who was all by herself.
What are my take-homes? What am I getting out of this crazy situation with this man harassing us in an airport?
Having boundaries with my kids has helped me teach them about setting boundaries with others, without escalating the situation. I haven’t always done it perfectly, so please don’t think that. I’ve yelled at them. I’ve tried to use power over them at times when I’ve felt really scared. It hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve seen me work on it. When there needs to be a boundary, I speak it. This modeling is what they’re internalizing and what they depend on when something unexpected happens.
I’ve raised a son who is competent to handle himself in unexpected situations, including other angry people. I wasn’t confident like that when I was his age. He’s very much an introvert and doesn’t like “peopling” any more than he has to, so being in NYC was a stretch for him already. But he rose to the occasion with confidence and he handled it.
The brain stoplight is helpful in many places and at many times, not just with your kids. This guy was on full-blown red, in his survival brain. People don’t usually make good choices when they’re on red. My son and I stayed out of red. That seems somewhat of a miracle for many reasons, but I also can tell you that we’ve been working on this for a long time.
I know that people on red need to be spoken to without a lot of words or reasoning. I didn’t try to reason with him, I just told him what to do. “Back down.” His fired-up brain didn’t have to process that. It was simple. I was firm, not threatening, and since he wasn’t thinking, he did what I told him to do. And I thanked him, which sealed it. In his mind, which wasn’t functioning very well, it was now a done deal.
Talk about it until it feels complete for everyone
When things like this happen, we need to talk about it and understand the story we’re telling about it. I shared a little bit with my son and I also talked to my husband about what had happened.
When I was talking to my husband, I mentioned how I was tapping into my “Inner New Yorker” and epigenetics, as my great-grandparents were New Yorkers. I was able to recognize what a different place I am personally in to handle it in this way, and that my mama bear is right there when I need her. There’s nothing like someone attacking your kid to get that mobilized!
But I can also see how far I’ve come. When I was his age, I am not sure that I would have even said anything to this angry man. Maybe even 5 years ago, honestly. The story I’m telling myself about this event is one of acknowledging my growth since I was his age.
My son needed space to talk about it, too, and we will probably continue to tell that story until it feels complete for both of us. There may be layers of this story that will unfold in the coming days and it’s important for us to continue talking about it.
Story Healing is important for young children too
We have a natural inclination to want to talk about the things that happen to us, yet we also reason with ourselves about it being over and that it isn’t necessary to talk about it. Get into the habit of talking about things when they happen, even with your babies and very young children. Recognize the story you’re telling yourself about it and the story they’ve made up to make sense of what happened. Young children will show you their experience through their behaviors. When we talk about the things that happen close to the time they happened, we can often avoid some of the uncomfortable behaviors that result from them trying to communicate an experience they don’t have words for. But even when time has passed, telling the story is important.
Sometimes unexpected things like this happen. That’s life, whether you leave the house or not. Being able to talk about these things later, and truly listen and support one another, is one of the most important things we can do as parents. It increases resilience and our connection to one another. And that’s how we are truly strong – it’s when we remember that we’re not handling this life thing all on our own. We’re doing it together.