Recently one of my sweetest friends posted a status update on facebook soliciting ideas for goody bags to hand out to fellow passengers when she and her husband take their two small children on a long distance flight.
I’ve seen this idea before, and as a new mother with a young baby, I—too—considered doing something like this as a way to befriend passengers around me that might be a little put-off by seeing they were about to share a tiny cabin with a brand new seven-week-old baby and a mother traveling solo.
I ended up doing nothing of the sort (mostly because what mother of a newborn has time to prepare “treats” for strangers as she’s preparing for an overseas trip?), but I’ve since taken many flights and have firmly decided that this idea, although nice on a certain level, is actually a bad one.
Since my first flight as a mom (from Australia to America alone), and over the course of more than 50 flights in the four years since then – short and long, domestic and international, with my husband or solo – I have come to believe it’s a bad idea for parents to hand out goody bags to other passengers with a cute little “sorry in advance for your inconvenience” message.
Are kids are less important than adults?
My main concern with this concept is that it inadvertently reduces our children to inconveniences to be tolerated, rather than children to be nurtured and supported, and that the adults’ needs on the plane somehow trump the kids’ needs. Obviously that is not the intention of well-meaning parents who are hoping to spare other passengers from an ill-timed meltdown (or any meltdown, for that matter), but apologizing in advance can unconsciously perpetuate an attitude of entitlement in the adults around us, rather than one of compassion and tolerance and empathy toward both our children and toward us. I realize that some may disagree with me completely, but I think—however subtle—we need to think through what others may read between the lines.
Let kids be kids, rather than “seen and not heard”
In our grandparents’ generation, children were expected to be “seen not heard”… but haven’t we grown beyond that sentiment by now? Child development experts and parents alike intrinsically understand that children need to be children. We complain about how they “grow up too fast” with all that they’re subjected to on TV, in school, and on playgrounds, and yet we don’t want them to have the freedom to be kids and do what kids do – yes, even ask for another juice box just a little too loudly on the plane. If we think this “seen but not heard” attitude is outdated, then why would we suspend that belief on flights and expect our children to act like adults as soon as the fasten seatbelt sign lights up?
Sometimes flights just suck, and there’s nothing we can do about it
In all my years of frequent plane travel, I can think of several flights that were miserable for me, none of which included the “problem” of kids. One was a flight from Kenya to India where the stinkiest feet on planet earth were a row behind me, freed from their shoes for the entire duration of the 12-hour flight. It was so bad that flight attendants were constantly walking up and down the isles spraying disinfectant and air freshener. I spent the all-night flight gasping for air though my scarf as my eyes watered from the stench.
On another annoying flight I was traveling from Egypt to Morocco via a transfer in Italy. I’ve never heard such noise on a flight before – it was like the New York Stock Exchange with people literally standing up in their seats, talking—yelling!—to each other several rows ahead or behind. Or the flight when I sat next to a lovely elderly couple while one of them farted her way, blissfully unaware, through the entire five-hour fight across Australia.
But you know what? I had to be a grown-up on those flights. I had to give up my entitlement and not collapse into a fit because the flight wasn’t going according to my ideals. I had to forgive a stinky man, a slew of middle-aged Italians, and a sweet woman delivering death by natural-made chemical warfare. I had to swallow my pride, bite my tongue, and extend grace because I’m an adult, and adults should act like grown-ups.
When adults act like children and want children to act like adults
In my more than 50 flights with my kids (age four and under), I can honestly only think of one where a woman in the seat behind us was clearly upset about sharing her breathing space with my boys and I (this was a 14-hour flight from LA to Sydney that I was on by myself). She huffed and puffed and continued to ram the back of my seat with her knees to make sure I understood her disapproval. In my kids’ defense, they were great travelers on that flight — one of their absolute best! (Others around us kept commenting how wonderfully they were doing.)
This lady’s behavior was so absurd that I eventually complained to the flight attendant and asked her if she could somehow talk to the lady discreetly and defend us a little. Several minutes later I heard her behind me explaining that the children were paying passengers and they had just as much right as she did to a comfortable flight. In the end, the lady simmered down. But you know what I learned in that scenario? I learned that the immature one on the flight wasn’t my 3-year-old, nor was it my 18-month-old. It was her – the grown woman throwing a fit because the mom in front of her kept having to get up and down to change diapers on one child and make endless potty runs with the other.
This lady was acting like a child because my children weren’t acting like grown-ups. It was nonsensical on the most basic level. (Maybe she had been given a parent-guilt-ridden goody bag on another flight and was bitter at me for my obvious lack of foresight on this one — where was her goody bag filled with Starbucks vouchers and ear plugs and homemade cookies?)
The unknowns of traveling with small kids can be scary and intimidating
Now young parents, here me loud and clear: I understand the fear of having your small children on long flights, I do. A myriad of things can go wrong and we don’t know how they’ll cope in such a confined space. (Or you don’t know how you’ll cope in such a confined space.) I also understand the lighthearted desire to buffer your neighbors with a little treat in hopes they don’t shoot you the evil eye if your child starts crying. I get it – all of it. (And yes, they probably will cry at some point during a long flight. Kids do that sort of thing.)
But who we really should be thinking about is our children. Let’s do our best to prepare for their happiness (snacks! treats! toys! games!) and then give them the benefit of the doubt. And with as much grace as possible, let’s help fellow passengers to remember that children are people, too, and that it’s offensive (and plain wrong) to treat them as an inconvenience to be tolerated.
I’ve stopped worrying about my kids and flying as I’ve learned that kids will be kids, no matter if they’re on an airplane or in your living room. They will have loud moments and quiet moments. When they get loud at home, you take them into another room or outside and help them to calm down; when they get loud on the plane, you take them for a walk up and down the aisles or stand in the back. No big deal. That’s called parenting – doing what you need to do when you need to do it – and being mindful of your children while also taking into consideration the others around you. (And I do realize that there is the possibility for things to go terribly wrong — little ears that won’t pop, a pacifier that vanishes into thin air, or a toddler that has a huge accident when you’re not allowed out of your seat. This is when you have to roll with it and trust in the good of others to lend you a hand as they’re able.)
Relax, and trust your ability to parent well – even on an airplane
The biggest thing I’ve learned in flying with small children is that your flight will normally go according to your expectations. If you do your best to prepare and then settle in for the ride, your kids will likely surprise you. They’ll do fine, just fine! Other passengers will play peek-a-boo through the cracks between seats and flight attendants will bring them crayons and tell you how adorable they are. As you get off the plane the businessman with grey hair will wink and give you the thumbs up. A woman in her 40’s shuffling tweens down the aisle will tell you what a great job you did. The captain will high five your toddler on the way out and a grandmother in her 70’s will tell you she never heard a peep while you wait together at the baggage claim.
Most people are really nice, so have a little faith
People are mostly nice—really nice—and they have compassion on you as you wrangle tiny backpacks and sippy cups and your oversized purse stuffed with all but the kitchen sink. They feel bad for the baby who’s ears won’t pop and the mother exhausted from endless games of “this little piggy”. They think you’re amazing and they applaud you for “bravery” and admire your children for being irresistably cute.
And those people who aren’t really nice? They probably missed their morning cup of coffee or left for their trip with an unresolved fight lingering at home. Everyone has reasons for responding the way they do, but as parents, let’s take responsibility for our kids – not for the adults around us – and remember that our attitude and the tone we set can go a long way. Things like warm hellos as you’re getting settled at the beginning of the light, friendly eye contact, and apologizing if your toddler begins wailing after jamming his finger in the tray table (after comforting him, of course), can help soften most any skeptic’s attitude. Sometimes all people need to help them lighten up is a genuine smile and a kind or witty remark. And other times, nothing you can do will help… because every now and then you run into someone that just doesn’t like kids.
Trust yourself and trust your kids
By all means, if your child does the opposite of what I’ve said and becomes a monster once the plane lifts of the ground, buy those near-by a round of drinks or share your goldfish crackers or stash of lollipops – do whatever you have to do to try and make up for the perfect storm that hitched a ride in your carry-on. (And I say “monster” as tongue-in-cheek here – no child is a monster, no matter how much they lose control or misbehave.)
But by and large – trust yourself, trust your kids, and trust those around you to be decent. Because if you start handing out apologies for bringing your kids on flights, then what will be next? Goody bags at the doctor’s waiting room? Goody bags for the check-out line? Goody bags for other restaurant-goers?
Come on, let kids be kids and expect grown-ups to be grown ups.
For those of you that still feel nervous about traveling with your babies and small kids, you can read my four best tips for airplane travel with little ones. I’ve narrowed all the advice down to four tips… and I really think that’s all you need! (Though if you do want more, you can go here for more tips about traveling with a baby.)
Let’s not overcomplicate this friends. Are you tired of this refrain yet? — Let kids be kids and expect grown ups to be grownups.