Who Needs Oxygen?

It had been a long day. First a visit to Grandma and Grandpa and then a trip to the mall to buy school clothes. It was late, dark, and we still had twenty minutes before we would reach home. Mark, age eight, in his booster seat, and Paul, age four, in his safety seat were squirming, squabbling, and playing the “don’t touch me game.”

“That’s it,” I said as I put on my turn signal. I slowed down and pulled way off of the highway. “It’s obvious you guys need some oxygen.” I asked Kim to hand me a flashlight out of the glove compartment. Then I unbuckled both boys and stood with them by the side of the car.

“I can’t drive us home safely if I’m distracted by you guys fighting.”

I had to suppress my urge to just hug them and put them back in the car. They both looked so small and scared.

“Now I know you don’t want daddy to have an accident and you just told me a few minutes ago that you’d stop. Obviously you need fresh air and more oxygen for your brain so you can control your behavior.”

Turning on the flashlight, I pointed to a flat area.

“You guys walk around here until you get enough oxygen and we can go home safely.”

After I gave the light to Mark, I got back into the car. I cracked the window slightly so we could hear them as they marched back and forth in the area I had pointed out. At first, they were quiet. Then began the recriminations. Finally, Mark convinced his younger brother that they could maintain a truce until we got home.

Mark came over to the car, little brother trailing behind. He opened the car door and said, “We’re ready now.”

“OK,”I answered. I got out and made sure both boys were securely buckled in. Then I returned to the driver’s seat and we completed our journey. The whole episode took about five minutes. In all of the years of driving the kids from Woodland Park to Colorado Springs, I only had to make them “get oxygen” twice. Almost always, the question, “Who needs oxygen?” was sufficient to quell whatever behavior was creating a distracted driving situation.

Kim and I were raised differently. If our parents stopped the car we were getting an ass whooping right there by the side of the road. After the boys were grownups, I asked them about that night. Paul admitted that he was scared that we might leave him there by the side of the road. But both admitted that the threat of getting oxygen made the point that driving is dangerous and their behavior could make it more so.

I felt bad that Paul was afraid of being abandoned. If I could do it over again, I would have stayed outside with them. But the threat and follow-through was both necessary and effective.

I have dealt with a lot of parents whose kids were out of control. The prison system I work in is full of those kids who are now adults. Some of them I even had in school. I heard every excuse as to why parents couldn’t discipline their children. My favorite was that Social Services prevented them from spanking their kids. Besides being incorrect, since Social Services does allow use of a hand striking a child’s bottom, spanking is unnecessary for most kids over age three. But you have to be smarter than your children. Or get advice from those who are. I am very fond of the work of Jim Fey and Foster Cline, founders of the Love and Logic Institute, and I used their techniques often. But even they have clients who insisted that Psychology didn’t work on their kids. Based on my observations it was usually the failure of the parents that led to the problems of the children. Yes, there are kids with physically based behavioral problems that make behavior modification difficult. But those cases are rarer than parents insist.

I understand… parenting is hard. Often the example provided by your own upbringing is totally inadequate for raising your children. Life itself is hard and tiring, and kids make it even more so. Exhibit A: I heard a parent scream at her daughter in Walmart to stop yelling because it was bad for her. I’m sorry. How smart do you have to be to understand that yelling at a kid to stop yelling is totally a waste of time? Or that giving candy to kids in the checkout line to keep them quiet is kicking a can down the road that will get much harder to deal with. Does this kind of knowledge take a Master’s degree to figure out?
Raising kids is like growing a garden. It takes a lot of work at first and special care at specific times as well as daily maintenance. But if you don’t do the hard work when necessary, the work will get harder and eventually become impossible as time goes on. Creating a successful garden is not about gardening. It’s about the garden. If you water on a schedule instead of when the plants need water, you will hurt their growth. You must pay attention to the condition of the plants. Children are the same way.

Children are not miniature adults. They have simpler needs when they are young: food, water, and unconditional love. When they act up, there is an underlying cause, often physical. Is the child hungry, thirsty, tired, injured, in need of a toilet or clean diaper? That night on Ute Pass, my boys were tired of being strapped into their seats. Getting them some air solved the problem as well as giving them incentive to hold it together for a little while longer. Once the physical needs are satisfied, the emotional needs of children are also very basic: love, fear, loneliness. It is often said that kids don’t come with instruction manuals. That is false. If you watch closely, you’ll see that a child is their own instruction manual. You just have to take the time to read it and understand