Helplessness, interrupted


Yesterday, I was walking to the city along the river, past where Circus Oz pitches their tent every year near the Federation Bells. It’s school holiday time here, and as I approaching I saw a little girl in a red-hooded jacket standing by a tree.

She was about two years old, and I could see she had been with a group of  mothers and children who were heading towards the stairs to get to the circus.

She’d obviously been at the back of the group, and something must have happened to annoy or upset her and she’d decided to hang back and not go off with the group.

As I came up to where she was standing she held out her arms towards the departing group and cried weakly, “Mum”, and then flopped her arms down by her sides in exaggerated helplessness. She took a step or two forward, looked towards the group to see if they’d noticed yet, and then stopped again. Her bottom lip was stuck out, and as if she had a speech bubble above her head, I could clearly read what she was thinking.

She was trying out ways of relating to the world, trying out how she was going to attempt to make the world conform to her wishes, and she had almost decided helplessness was the way she was going to proceed.

I say almost because of how the mother responded.

There’s no right or wrong in these cases; parents are doing their best and they cannot prevent a child settling on ways of relating to the world that will not serve the child. All human beings do it: around the age of 2 to 3 years, they decide on ways of relating to the world that do not serve them which, nevertheless, they use for the rest of their lives.

So while there’s no right or wrong, in this case, the mother did the key thing: she showed her love to the child.

As she reached the foot of the stairs, which was now quite some way off, I saw her prop suddenly and realise something was wrong. She turned and saw her daughter in the distance and started running. Then I saw the moment when she could see her daughter was OK. Her body relaxed and she slowed down. She took a step or two forward, then threw her arms open wide and smiled, encouraging her daughter to come to her. The little girl took off and ran into her mother’s arms.

I don’t think the little girl settled on her mode of relating to the world yesterday. It will happen soon, though. In the meantime, there are acrobats to see.


Image: Circus Oz performers with the Federation Bells


6 thoughts on “Helplessness, interrupted

  1. I love this story, Narelle. The woman sounds like a great, patient mom. (Some would have yelled at the girl in frustration, but this response seems so much healthier.)


  2. Some mothers encourage the helplessness unfortunately. A few word such as “she’s not as smart as her brother and sister”, or “poor Sally”, shape the rest of her life in most people. They feel worthless, and adopt a “why try” attitude. If a love affair or a job failure comes their way, they are indeed helpless to do anything about it. Now and then someone will fight back against the parent’s disregard and take an “I’ll show them” position and achieve great success. Take Larry Ellison of Oracle fame for instance, whose father told him he would never amount to anything! Or Howard Schultz the father of Starbuck’s whose widowed mother raised him alone in a tenement apartment . It helps to have an understanding mother!


    • So true that these usually throwaway remarks are latched on to by children with unfortunate results. And it’s unavoidable. The comparison between siblings, “this one’s this way, that one’s that way …” is really pernicious.

      You’re right. Some mothers encourage the helplessness. I take it that’s because helplessness is their own mode of trying to get the world to conform to their wishes which they decided on when they were 2 to 3.


  3. Case in point. “A” is a shy woman who was overshadowed by her younger brother who had many friends, an exuberant personality, and a superior sense of self. Great athlete, much admired by friends and parents. “A” developed a huge chip on her shoulder, and when she married and had children, 2 were blessed with personality and were very good in school. The middle child was much like her mother, and simply “gave up” rather than compete. Parents do pass along their values and habits whether they want to or not.


    • Good case study.

      Sounds like A made the decision when she was very young she was going to “vacate the field” for her brother, and her daughter’s simply imitated the same mechanism. It’s interesting to consider that a child who chooses this mode of (non)operating is actually fiercely competitive. Because they feel they can’t be number one, they pretend the game doesn’t matter to them. They will also be quite elaborate in making sure they communicate this pose of “the game doesn’t matter to me” to all around them.

      There’s a lovely Landmark Forum leader who tells a beautiful story about herself and her sister. She was born first and she tells of the day something happened when she was 2. Her mother brought home another baby!

      She says she can remember vividly a picture of the commotion in the house, and seeing the legs of all the relatives walking by where she sat. All of a sudden it occurred to her they were not coming to see her, they were coming to see the other baby! She grew up thinking her sister was prettier, smarter, better, more loveable, more loved, etc. In that one shocking instant, she made a decision (the first of several we make during childhood and adolescence) about who she was for the world: a kind of also-ran, second-best, not good enough.


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