The Dilemma of Babies on Airplanes

Hamstrung by the need to ensure that their kids don’t inconvenience anyone else, parents can’t do much parenting at all.

A child's hand on an airplane window
The Atlantic

Boarding a crowded plane with a small child feels like entering a game show where each contestant has been given a different set of rules: Everyone walks away feeling cheated. Nonparents feel robbed of the peaceful trip they paid for. Parents feel that they were set up for failure. The ultimate prize—a relaxing trip with no screaming and no strangers shooting you judgy looks—is rarely winnable. In the most heated conflicts, one of the aggrieved parties takes to social media, where the public acts as referee. The matter is almost never resolved.

Why does flying with children generate such conflict? It could simply be that travel is hard, for kids and adults alike, and tends to bring out the worst in both. But I suspect it’s more than that. Sharing airspace with young children seems to challenge not only our patience, but also the entire social order.

At the root of every one of these seemingly small-potatoes skirmishes is a bigger question: What do we owe a stranger’s child? Should we have to listen to them cry and babble? Must we tolerate the sound of their toys and TV shows? Are we obligated to trade our premium window seats with them so they can sit with their parents?

A sensible answer is that you don’t owe anything to other people’s children, or rather, that you owe them nothing more than you owe anyone else. It’s a very American answer, one that follows naturally from the logic of liberalism: Each of us is the master of our own destiny, free to do as we please within the bounds of the law, and to bear the consequences. To have children, then, is to assume the social and financial costs of raising them. Your kids, your problem. In shared public spaces, parents are responsible for making the appropriate arrangements not only to care for their kids, but also to ensure that they aren’t an imposition on others.

The conditions on an airplane are uniquely suited to testing how well this works in practice. There are few institutions that cater to young kids, and air travel certainly isn’t one of them. Thus, as elsewhere in American life, it’s mostly up to parents to try to meet their child’s needs in a space designed for adults. You might assume that airlines would at least ensure that parents can sit next to their own kids, but in many cases, you must pay for the privilege. (To be fair, the Department of Transportation issued a notice earlier this year urging airlines to allow parents to sit with kids 13 and under at no extra charge.) But unlike in other public places, passengers on an airplane cannot leave. Parents and children can’t hide away in playgrounds or libraries. People who don’t like kids can’t avoid them. Enclosed in a flying metal tube, we witness in real time how spectacularly the tenets of individualism collapse when kids crawl into the picture. In the air, we must face the fact that everyone’s kids are everyone’s problem—and witness how strange things get when we pretend otherwise.

The individualistic approach to parenting rests on an assumption that breaks down the moment the flight crew shuts the door: that parents control their child’s behavior. Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem telling my kids “no.” But even strict parenting doesn’t allow you to control your kids like a marionette. You can get very stern with a toddler or confiscate their toys, but you can’t actually force them to stop yelling.

In the nearly six years since I became a parent, I have flown with one or both of my daughters more than 50 times, and I have no more advice for parents than what they will find in the trillion well-intentioned but underwhelming articles already in circulation about how to fly with little kids. Some children seem to handle air travel better than others, but that has as much to do with their temperament as anything their parents are doing (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). It gets easier with age and practice, but there is no parenting hack for making your kid act like an adult on an hours-long flight to see Grandma for the holidays.

Many readers will no doubt disagree with me and insist that parents these days are simply too soft. The parents of yesteryear would never have tolerated such behavior. People have been saying as much for a long time. “Why all this fuss about traveling with kids?” a man was quoted as saying in a New York Times feature on traveling with children. “When I was little, kids sat where they were told, kept their feet off the upholstery and that was that. If we wanted amusement we looked out the window.” “Maybe so,” conceded the author, Dorothy Barclay. “But children that thoroughly disciplined are rare in this era.” The year was 1956.

The impossibility of controlling a small child’s behavior doesn’t stop people from trying, which can have some odd effects on parenting. Sometimes, I have found myself performatively reprimanding my kids, lest I be accused of “letting” them misbehave. If you ever hear a parent in the row behind you say something like “That’s quite enough, young lady” or “Time to sit still” to their lap baby, rest assured: You are the intended listener. But most of the time, preventing a child from annoying fellow passengers means doing anything and everything to keep the kid happy. Especially with toddlers, this is an exhausting process that entails using distractions to purchase relative peace in 10-minute increments.

Oftentimes, the pressure to keep a child quiet means relaxing boundaries a parent might otherwise enforce. Screen limits and dietary considerations go out the window. One time, when my eldest was 18 months old and still uninterested in screens, I took a tip from Jim Gaffigan’s book Dad Is Fat and purchased a bag of Dum Dums for the flight, hoping that having a lollipop in her mouth might help keep her entertained and quiet. It worked, sort of—but unfortunately, Dum Dums don’t last very long. She had two before we boarded and several more in the air. Sparing the rest of the plane the wrath of a child who’s been told “no” requires parents to pick their battles. If I always insisted that my daughters not eat the food they drop on the airplane floor, as I probably ought to, my fellow passengers would get an earful about it.

Some people think parents are simply too inconsiderate of their fellow passengers to bother disciplining their children. In fact, in many cases, consideration is at the root of parents’ strangely permissive behavior. Why is that dad letting his kid jump up and down in the seat? Because it’s the only way to stop her from kicking the seat in front of her. Why is that mom allowing her kid to listen to Ms. Rachel without headphones? Because the kid won’t tolerate headphones, and she’s betting that passengers prefer Ms. Rachel to the alternative (kicking and climbing and whining and screaming).

You may disagree with how a particular parent handles a particular scenario, but there’s often no way to make everybody happy. Take the time my then–lap baby discovered that if she released the tray table in front of her, it would fall with a delightful thwack that could not have been pleasant for the person sitting in front of us. What does a conscientious parent do in that scenario? I could place my hand over the clasp and physically bar her from fiddling with it, but she’d lose her mind for anywhere from five to 55 minutes if I did. Do I subject everyone on the plane to an extended tantrum in order to spare the gentleman in front of me two hours of thwacking? I’m serious—I really want to know.

The actual needs of the child are all too often absent from this tricky social calculus. But that’s what happens when the job of a parent in a shared public space is principally to ensure that the child isn’t a nuisance. It demands a style of parenting that is at once hypervigilant and overly permissive, where kids are given constant attention but no agency. Ironically, it works against the long-term goal of raising competent, well-behaved kids. Hamstrung by the need to make sure their kids don’t inconvenience anyone else, parents can’t do much parenting at all.

I don’t mind letting my parenting slide for a couple of hours in order to keep the peace on an airplane, but I wish I didn’t have to. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t feel socially irresponsible to tell my child not to eat off the floor or that she’s watched enough Peppa Pig for now. But that would require other passengers to accept a little unruly—that is, childlike—behavior rather than see it as a failure of parenting or a violation of the social contract. There is no way to allow kids to be kids and parents to be parents in public without letting them play by a different set of rules.

The tension between the needs of children and the comfort, order, and efficiency of adult life play out everywhere: restaurants, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, malls, workplaces, you name it. Children just don’t fit neatly into the adult world. Not tolerating that essential truth excludes parents and children from public life and forces parents to compromise on their child’s care. You can’t tailor a child’s needs to fit an adult system; you have to tailor the system to suit the child’s needs.

Giving parents the space to care for a helpless child as they guide them toward competence and autonomy means accepting that we will all be a little inconvenienced. It means organizing work in ways that allow parents to meet the unpredictable and inflexible needs of their kids. It means accepting some noise in restaurants, stores, and, yes, planes. It means introducing inefficiency and discomfort into adult life. Everyone is affected in the process. It’s not possible to keep a child’s needs contained within an individual household. Parenting is a prerequisite for the orderly cooperation among free adults that liberalism promises—but it also disrupts it. We pay this price one way or another: A society unwilling to relax its social contract for its smallest members won’t do a great job of raising adults capable of upholding it.

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