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Oxygen Masks

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (April 7, 2016)

I was recently traveling back from a family vacation and was watching the safety video on the airplane. I had watched it many times before but something struck me this time – the part about needing to put on your own oxygen mask before putting it on for your child. I would think that goes against our parental instincts. Shouldn’t we help those around us first, especially those who can’t help themselves? Shouldn’t we care for a child before we care for ourselves?

On a practical level, I think we see parents putting their children first in many ways. For example, I’ve seen how one parent chooses to take public transport to work so that their children can get driven to school by the other parent in the private car. Or how parents will sacrifice going away on holiday because their child has to stay home to study for exams. Or even simply letting a child eat dinner first even if the parent is very hungry because you’d rather be hungry than have him hungry. All these little acts are acts of sacrifice that seem to point to putting an ‘oxygen mask’ on a child before putting it on you. But is that the best way to go?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love our children and make appropriate sacrifices for them but I do think there is wisdom in ‘putting our own oxygen masks first’. If we don’t have our ‘masks’ on, we can’t breathe properly and when we can’t breathe properly, we’re not helpful to anyone around us. But if we have our ‘masks’ on, we are available and able to be self-functioning, then we can help those around us.

At a teacher training talk I gave recently, I talked about the importance of maintaining personal health - not just physical health but emotional, mental and social health. Our health affects the way we interact with others and the health of others. I remember one particular time when I had slept very badly the night before and I had to take on a rather challenging class. I found myself being less attentive to the needs of the students in my class and when one of them acted up and disobeyed the class rules, I was harsher towards him than I would usually be if I had better rest. So, I made a mental note that I needed to make sure I was physically healthy and in a good restful state so that I can be the best teacher I can be. I needed first to put on my ‘oxygen mask’ so that I can best help the students in my class. I think the same goes for all individuals, especially for parents who need to interact with their children constantly.

Being a parent can be draining and unless we have an ‘oxygen source’ that keeps us healthy, it’s easy for us to be short-tempered, and emotional with our children. So we need to take care of ourselves first and find ways to fill our own tanks before we fill our kids’ tanks. So, take the time to relax, have time for yourself, exercise, spend time with friends, get a massage, go watch a movie, read a book you like and ‘fill your tank’. The risk of not doing so may mean us being short tempered and harsh with words and actions and when it’s with children, they are the best ‘copy cats’. They will do what we do, more than do what we say. So put on your mask and then help your kids put theirs on – not the other way around.


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