Do You Keep to the Surface or Go Deep?

September 5, 2013 at 5:15 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)


Have you heard of Parkour? I hadn’t until recently. Our family has been watching American Ninja Warrior, an obstacle course that requires near superhuman strength of its competitors, and I’ve noticed that just about every one of the athletes who competes in this event trains in something called Parkour. Parkour is a whole-body sport that is about propelling your body forward, and using obstacles in your environment to help keep you going. It’s pushing off of walls, vaulting over rails, swinging from bars and beams. You get the idea.

You might also get the idea that after an hour class of learning Parkour skills, your body might be sore. I didn’t. Our family took an hour-long Parkour class last weekend, and I never considered that I might not be able to move the next day.  Only when I woke up in the morning with my shoulders practically glued together and every inhale a pain around my torso did I realize just how much of my body I had used in jumping those obstacles.

My first thought was to remember the massage I had scheduled for later that day. Then I thought, “Oh, yes, that is exactly what my poor muscles need!” But my third thought was, “Oh wait. No it isn’t. That’s going to be torture.”

And I had to go. The massage was scheduled in a few hours, and at this point I couldn’t cancel without paying a fee.  So I went anyway and told my therapist how unexpectedly sore I was. She said, “That’s OK, we just won’t go as deep today.”

So she kept to the surface. She didn’t use her elbow like she usually does. She didn’t isolate the interior muscles and dig into the trigger points while I breathe through the intensity like I’m going through childbirth. For that day she used a light touch on my sorest parts and just skimmed the surface of my “problem” areas.

It felt OK during the session…but it wasn’t the most effective massage. We were making the most of the situation–doing just enough so that it didn’t feel like doing nothing. But it wasn’t doing everything. It wasn’t working to solve any of my deeper muscle issues.

My therapist and I talked about this a bit during the session. She mentioned that she has clients who come in frequently for Swedish massages (the feel-good-in-the-moment, but stick-to-the-surface kind) but what they really need is the deep tissue work. She can tell their muscle tension runs deep, and the only way to effectively work it out is to get at those inner layers of muscle. But she said some clients don’t handle well the kind of intensity and pain that deep tissue work requires. So they stick to the surface massage and come in again and again without really making any progress.

I couldn’t help but think how true this is of behaviors, too. When there are knots and tension in your child’s behavior, what do you do? Try to treat them at the surface, going for a momentary change? Or do you go for the deeper fix, the one that might be more difficult in the moment?

We all have our go-to surface treatments in our parenting toolbox. I do, and I totally know when I’m using them. Tricks and strategies that get me through a moment or a phase of behavior. They’re the ones that are easiest to implement–the ones that feel like I’m doing something just so I’m not doing nothing.

Keep to the surface: Remove a privilege/ fun activity/ favorite toy for a child’s poor behavior.
Go deep: Bring your relationship closer together to stay attuned to the child’s needs as well as to increase cooperation from the child. Recognize that your child is having a problem, not being a problem. Work together to meet the needs and solve the problems.

Keep to the surface: Hand your child your iPhone at the restaurant table.
Go deep: Engage child the child in the meal. Meet her needs for developmentally appropriate stimulation and activity (by sitting on your lap, including her in the conversation, playing games, getting up to take walks when necessary, etc.). Continue going out to eat so she regularly practices and learns dining-out skills.

Keep to the surface: Replace your child’s broken toy so he won’t be sad.
Go deep: Listen to his feelings about the toy. Accept his sadness as normal and OK. Offer an understanding hug and words of support and empathy. Trust in his strength to recover from this hardship.

The deeper treatments are harder–sometimes harder to administer, sometimes harder to endure. Perhaps they are intense and require some holding and some deep breathing until the tension dissipates. These are the approaches that address problems at the source. There is certainly a time and place for those surface treatments; we all need them once in a while. Just keep in mind what they’re really accomplishing: getting you through the moment.  Remember to check in with where things are headed beyond that moment by asking yourself, am I addressing the deeper issues?

The issues that come with raising children are rarely just on the surface. Go deep when you can.


  1. Stacie said,

    Really like this post! Whenever I want to keep to the surface, I remind myself of the type of relationship I want to have with my child when she becomes a teenager and young adult. I imagine those will be crucial periods, and I want her to feel she can come to me about any issues that arise during those times. But if I spend all of her childhood years just sticking to the surface, how will I cultivate a relationship where she feels comfortable coming to me in later years? Usually, that thought helps me overcome the temptation of just “getting through the moment” while she is a child. Plus, it’s so cute interacing her at the preschool age!

  2. Thekla Richter said,

    There is a lot of truth here. But in massage, and parenting, I think it also helps to know *when* to go deep, exactly where (not all spots are equally good and that can shift too), and to learn the difference between pain from going deep that is part of healing and growth, and pain that’s only creating trauma and could be making things worse. Sometimes the lightest touch can be more healing than anything else, if it comes in the right moment in the right way. And a massage therapist going deep had sure better know what they are doing. Range is good.Timing and precision matter. Deeper isn’t automatically better.

  3. In deep | Still on my feet said,

    […] Have a read of this one: Do you keep to the surface or go deep? […]

  4. JamericanSpice (@Jamericanspice) said,

    Wow. This is awesome. I try to do this with my children.

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