Monday, November 30, 2009


Children and airplanes, another view

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about children on red-eye flights — and got quite a few hate-mail-like comments about it. At the risk of more of the same, I’ll point my readers at an opinion piece from last week by Amy Alkon, “Screaming kids and airplanes: Mayday! Mayday!” Ms Alkon, a non-parent, as I am, doesn’t like having children’s behaviour inflicted on her in inappropriate places... and she thinks of airplanes as about as inappropriate as they get:

Root was appalled when a flight attendant told her something to the effect of “We just can’t tolerate that [screaming] for two hours,” reported the San Jose Mercury News. Root insisted Adam would be “fine once we take off” — which, in my book, means either “He’ll be fine” or “It would be a serious pain in the butt to be stuck in Amarillo another day.”


Southwest sent the right message in yanking Root and her screaming boy off the plane. Unfortunately, it lacked the corporate courage to stand its ground, probably fearing a public relations nightmare from the Mommy Mafia. Yet, almost every day, I encounter parents who need to get the same message Root initially did. Trust me — should I long to hear screaming children, I’ll zip right past my favorite coffeehouse and go read my morning paper at Chuck E. Cheese.

I know, I know — because I am not a parent I cannot possibly understand how hard it is to keep a child from acting out. Actually, that probably has more to do with the way I was raised — by parents I describe as loving fascists. As a child, I was convinced that I could flap my arms and fly, but the idea that I could ever be loud in a public place that wasn’t a playground simply did not exist for me.

I hear claims that some children are prone to tantrums no matter how exquisitely they are parented. If this describes your child, there’s a solution, and it isn’t plopping him in a crowded metal tube with hundreds of people who can’t escape his screams except by throwing themselves to their deaths at 30,000 feet.

Ms Alkon, soi-disantAdvice Goddess”, is known for her humorous and blunt, over-the-top manner, and the L.A. Times piece has well over 200 comments, as I write this, both for and against.

I’ll only say that I’m glad to have had two peaceful, quiet flights to and from Japan, on my recent trip.


[Thanks to Lisa Simeone for pointing me to the item.]


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

I couldn't disagree with you more, Barry.

Babies and little children scream. It's what they do. It's a part of nature. That doesn't mean that families don't have as much right to travel as you do. If you don't like it, travel with earplugs. But whether you use earplugs or not, I guarantee you the parents are having a harder time of it than you.

It is not the world's -- or the airline's -- job to protect you from normal family reality. The only reason you don't see it as normal reality is that you don't have kids, but kids are most definitely a part of life. The fact that you're lucky enough not to generally have to deal with it doesn't obligate the rest of us to bend over backwards for you on airplanes, or anywhere else where kids haven't been explicitly prohibited.

My kids were generally very well behaved on airplanes, but I regard that as dumb, random luck. I don't think that if they had started to cry, I would deserve to have all my travel plans upended. If the airlines told me when I bought my ticket that I could be kicked off if I had a screaming kid, that would be another story -- but I would never have bought a ticket from such an airline. I still wouldn't, despite the fact that all my kids are in their 20's. (Nowadays if a baby cries on a flight I'm on, my instinct is to see if I can help.)

I have zero sympathy for people who go through their whole lives not having to deal with kids, and then whine and complain about a few hours of exposure to what the rest of us have to go through for years. Until you find a kid-free airline, or an airline that promises to be screaming-kid free, you have no grounds for complaint, in my book.

I hope the kicked-off parent wins a big fat lawsuit against the airline. The airline should be responsible for all the costs of the messed up travel plans, for starters; I'd also argue for punitive damages to discourage airlines from future ad hoc changes to their policies that force legitimate customers off their planes at the last moment.

Barry Leiba said...

I understand what you're saying, and I'm not completely unsympathetic.

I do wonder, though, what you'd think of a parent sitting at a play or a symphony concert with a screaming child. Or walking through an art museum. Or a couple having a meal at a nice, expensive restaurant, with their screaming child in the seat next to them, as they periodically interrupt their conversation to say, "Shhhhh!" to the child, to no avail.

Children are certainly not explicitly prohibited in those places. And the parents are paying for their nice meal, or for their concert tickets, just as everyone else is, so they have a right to be there, yes?

I was once in a plane where a woman in the seat behind me was asked to leave because her dog — legally carried in a carrier that fit under the seat — wouldn't stop barking. Should she get compensation for that?

There's a level of disruption that I don't think the general public should be asked to deal with, and a family shouldn't get a free pass just because the disruption is caused by a child. We should, of course, try to accommodate... but at some point, it's too much. I think it's entirely reasonable to ask a parent to try again when the child is calmer.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

A play or concert is a completely different thing. First of all, no one really *needs* to go to a play or concert -- it's a luxury, unlike, say, flying home to grandma's funeral. Second -- although related -- there's a generally understood presumption that those are *adult* activities, not for kids. That's not true of an airplane ride. If a kid is making noise at an adult cultural event, I can get every bit as annoyed as you, I suspect.

Restaurants are at an interesting point in between -- you have to eat, after all, and sometimes you pretty much have to eat out, but you don't generaly need to eat with kids at a romantic five star restaurant. I think it's rude to take noisy kids to a "fancy" restaurant if a "family" restaurant is available, but I think these lines can get very fuzzy in areas with just a few restaurants.

As for dogs -- I think if they're service dogs, they should be allowed on the plane, period, If not, they can ride in the cargo hold.

What's different about kids on an airplane is that a plane is often the only alternative open to a wide range of people in very different situations. I really think they have to try to be tolerant of each other, and to try to understand that the circumstances of the other's life probably require them to be on the plane -- there may be no other option.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Oh, one other thing: trying again when the child is calmer sounds good, but aside from possible scheduling havoc, this simply doesn't work for a large number of parents whose kids have real problems -- autism, etc. Some of those parents spend 24 hours a day with a screaming kid, more or less. They deserve our sympathy. Their lives suck enough without banning them from air travel.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Try again when the kid is calmer" - and not only have your plans screwed up, but maybe not have a place to stay the night that night, or a guaranteed seat on the airplane the next day.

I have no kids, and I hate listening to them, but I can't say it's ever ruined my day to have one crying on the airplane or the bus. I carry an mp3 player, and I'm fine.

Restaurants are different - as Nathaniel said, there are grades of restaurants, but there aren't grades of planes.

The cat I owned before this one howled when we travelled, and I put her in baggage (until the time the airplane lost her and she ended up travelling to Nashville and being bussed to my parents'). But you know what? A cat yowling for three hours isn't the end of the world. Nor is a baby - even all the way from Japan, and I'll bet that it would fall asleep long before the flight was over.

Lisa Simeone said...

I adore children and have a high level of tolerance for them. But I don't have a high level of tolerance for rudeness. And in the U.S. these days, it seems that everyone thinks they a "right" to do everything whenever and wherever they want, all others be damned.

When I was growing up, adults had this funny saying: "My children are too young to do X." That might mean too young to behave in church. Or too young to behave on an airplane. Or too young to go to any event where they were -- uh -- too young! That meant the parents didn't take their children to eat at elegant restaurants, or to fly on airplanes. It was that simple.

Nobody suffered unduly from this code of etiquette. If they're too young to fly, they're sure as hell too young to even know what it means that grandma has died. You can go to the funeral without your young children. There's nothing wrong with that.

But then, with people constantly declaiming their "right" to do everything -- from yammering on their cellphones everywhere and anywhere, to texting while driving, to in general treating themselves and the space around them as their own private little cocoons, it's no wonder people think it's perfectly okay to take screaming, crying children on planes.

Oh, and as for checking a cat or dog in baggage??? Are you out of your flipping mind??

Count me as a child lover and animal lover. And someone who values courtesy. I extend it to others as a matter of course. Apparently it's too much to expect them to extend it to me.

Anonymous said...

Crying is one thing. Screaming is another, and it isn't "what they do". Chronic screaming is not acceptable behavior from any healthy child. Screaming is acceptable behavior only when one is in danger, frightened, in pain, or influenced by a contributory mental/medical condition.

If otherwise healthy children are chronic screamers they are either in need of *assistance (for earache, gas, etc.) or vying for attention. Little children easily understand the concept of 'crying wolf' if explained with care. The lesson is simple to teach at a very early age. I just successfully got the idea across to an eighteen month old. This lesson is like all others, requiring calm consistency and reinforcement -- two elements too often missing in parenting.

I traveled alone with my daughter (plus pets) via airplane, train and car. The last two modes taking up to two full days of confined travel. I love and respect children -- part and parcel of that is teaching them bounds, and gently and authoritatively reinforcing them. I've happily been a scout leader, teacher, children's museum educator, room mom, and field trip chaperone. I've also called parents of chronic screamers to request they pick their child up from activities. The other children were as stressed out by the screamer you might imagine an adult could be.

Nathaniel, it's not solely your supposed "people who go through their whole lives not having to deal with kids" that look at this behavior for what it is -- annoying, undesirable, and unacceptable. Chronic screamers are singled out by other children, tauntingly called "baby", and usually not welcome into games or other socializing opportunities. There is a much bigger picture to be seen here.

*[The toddler's mother furthered the lesson by explaining that screaming doesn't help us to understand when something is wrong. That the little girl should then point to what is bothering her, and to try to use her words.]

Beatty Towers Girl

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Re: "Little children easily understand the concept of 'crying wolf' if explained with care."

My twin granddaughters are 2 months old. I challenge you to explain this concept to them. I also have two autistic nephews; I challenge you to explain this concept to them, either.

It's true that sometimes, a screaming child is a sign of a parent not doing his or her job. But it's not always the case, and it's not always avoidable.

Anonymous said...

Why throw down the gauntlet, Nathaniel? It was you who lumped "babies and little children" together. Two month olds are infants. Crying, cooing, fussing, and screams of an infant are their necessary and natural inborn mode of pre-verbal communication.

I wrote of the concept being taught to a communicative toddler of 18 months. But, she understood because of groundwork that was laid the moment she entered into her mother's and father's arms.

Babies aren't little lumps too young to begin teaching, gently, in a nurturing fashion. During those quiet bonding moments continued and consistent non-verbal signs from a parent begin the process. Just as a caregiver's reassuring smile instills a feeling of security and safety, a caregiver's look of unpleasant surprise brings into play a baby's instinctive facial recognition abilities that help define the parameters of behavior.

Previously mentioned, screaming is acceptable behavior when one is in danger, frightened, in pain, or influenced by a contributory mental/medical condition. Autism, in its varied presentations, surely weighs in as a contributory condition, Nathaniel.

What I find horribly wrong is when a formidable adult yells at a baby or child when they are crying or screaming - then gets further irritated with the little one that they have now scared the mustard out of. Ah, but then we're back to bad adult behavior.

Beatty Towers Girl

Anonymous said...

I do hope that because a child has autism he or she not thought of as being overall unteachable.

Autism is a broad umbrella, each person has symptoms, disabilities and abilities unique to them.