I was traveling over the holidays and one early morning in the airport I noticed a young boy, probably 8 or 9 years old.
He had spiked hair and wore an untucked yet pressed white button down shirt, a down jacket and jeans with leather boots. The man next to him, looking at his phone, was dressed identically. And his hair was sticking up all over too.
They looked adorable, father and son, waiting at the United counter. The father’s eyes were glued to his phone as he scrolled, and scrolled and scrolled. The son was moving about, doing his thing, dancing to his own rhythm that only a young boy can have at 6am before boarding a cross-country flight.
The boy flitted between his mother, who was talking to the ticketing agent, and his father. In one of his passes he stood on his tippy toes and kissed his father’s hand.
The hand holding the phone. The father didn’t look at his son. Didn’t look up from the phone. Didn’t acknowledge the kiss.
He kept scrolling. I hope that’s a really urgent email he’s reading, I thought. I hope it’s from his boss, or the press agency he works for.
Or his mother. I hope-- really, really hope -- it’s not Facebook.
The son danced away, and danced back, planting another kiss on his father’s hand. Not even a flinch or a flicker of a response.
My heart hurt for this young man. Reaching out so lovingly and sweetly to his father, only to be ignored. There was something familiar in the scene before me that poked a tiny jab in the center of my chest.
Perhaps my own little girl self was reliving a moment many years ago when I’d danced around and sought my father’s love only to be rebuffed.
I recalled a passage I read the week before about relationship transactions based on the work of Dr. John Gottman who writes, “a husband and wife are continually making bids for each other’s attention—introducing a conversation topic, implicitly asking a favor, etc.—and the most successful couples are the ones who continually ‘turn toward’ their partners.” In essence, saying “yes” to each other’s requests for attention. I would imagine the same is true for children. And here I was witnessing a request for attention in a very small way, being rebuffed, or at the very least, ignored.
How often to do we miss these small ways in which others make requests for love, for acknowledgement, for being noticed. This was clearly one of those moments. And I seemed to be the only person on the planet witnessing it.
I coach leaders for a living. And a lot of those leaders are men. With children. And they were, themselves, children. I was intrigued by this interaction for two reasons: the story I can use to illustrate the importance of valuing those brief almost imperceptible moments when their child, or wife, employee or client is making a request. Reminding them to be present, pay attention, read the signs. To notice and acknowledge the need that another person has to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged.
And secondly I was intrigued because those I coach were once children, like this young boy, dancing to the beat of their own drum, flitting from parent to parent, making contact, pulling away, finding their place, their grounding. Learning when they can be vulnerable, what is acceptable, where the boundaries are. And facing hard lessons of what actions and behaviors elicit a loving response and what leads to rejection, reproach, withdrawal.
We all learned this. “Be a good mommy’s helper and I will love you” “Be responsible and you can have some freedom” “Be strong or I will ignore you.”
These are etched in our psyche, typically before the age of ten. Just the age I was witnessing in front of me now. The little brain grooves and patterns being formed before my eyes.
I wondered how many kisses had this young man given in hopes of a response? And what was this doing to him to not be seen or responded to? And what is the price everyone will pay down the line? Himself for shutting down, resentment towards his preoccupied father, the inability to be emotionally available in future relationships.
You may think I exaggerate, and of course I am observing but one of many interactions (perhaps there was a meltdown in the car, maybe the man is searching for a flight because they missed a connection?). I do know from experience these small interactions can hold lifetimes of pain. And the unravelling of them can be the unleashing of lifetimes of healing.
In my 25 years working with leaders mining the depths of their emotions and experiences, this lesson has been so crucial and profound:
Our actions matter. How we relate to our children and the people around us in the smallest of ways matters.
So please. Put down the phone. Hug your kid. Respond.
And then come tell me what you learned.