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Mother Tongue: Flight Training

May 10, 2012, 1:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst

Our last family airplane trip was eight months ago, but its memory lingers. Despite an arsenal of snacks, toys, stickers and always-entertaining post-it-notes, we were that family with that child--the unhappily wiggling and wailing one (thankfully not the throwing-up one, this time).

We had the good fortune to be in a three-seat row—or, rather, the other passengers had that good fortune since Sylvia couldn’t lunge, hollering, on a hapless stranger. Alas, sound travels more easily than bodies, even with the dulling thrum airplanes so helpfully provide.

In the abstract, I think it’s good to experience being the italicized or all-caps irritant in a situation. My hope is that it gives us empathy with the italicized/all-caps irritant that is not us the next time around. But when you’re actually in the living-the-italics moment, it simply sucks.

Our trip followed on a summer news thread highlighting child-free travel and entertainment options, so-called “brat bans” blocking kids from restaurants, resorts and certain sections of airplanes. Web posts discussing these real and ardently-hoped-for bans (especially on airplanes) garnered tens of thousands of comments, most of which seemed to be fairly vicious and ill-behaved rants from both sides.

The irony of self-righteous adults lambasting and defending children’s behavior with such extreme vitriol was, unfortunately, lost on many commenters, but the prevailing complaints confirmed that people feel strongly enough about child-free environments that industries are listening.

An AdWeek article identifying the baby-ban marketing movement pointed to demographic trends. Empty nesters and childless couples hold great spending power in the United States and other developed countries, where populations are aging and more couples are opting for fewer or no children.

What seems a shame to me is for this to force ever-increasing lines of segregation, to create more and more gated and sub-gated communities, as it were. I believe that many lines of diversity—including age and breeder/non-breeder diversity—make for a better society in innumerable ways.

I’m also quite aware that kids make things a lot louder and more chaotic. I’ve chosen this, very happily, but that’s not everyone’s preference. And, actually, as an inhabitant of that loud and chaotic space 99 percent of my time, I have great appreciation for “adult swim,” for a quiet drink or meal or conversation—or the idea of one of those quiet things, at any rate. I think most parents do. So somewhere in here, as parents, as citizens, we walk the lines between patience and indulgence, attentiveness and judgment.

It seems common sense that a little more awareness, consideration and tolerance from everyone would go a long way in the places where we meet as non-identical members of the public. What a pity I so often have such paltry resources of awareness, consideration and tolerance. Apparently I feel the same way about loud breathers as certain anonymous website commenters feel about my children.

Generous equanimity may be an absurd standard for airplane travel anyway. When you’re confined in a capsule at 30,000 feet with stale air and a grab-bag of entitled ticket-buyers, loving-humanity thoughts can be difficult to summon.

I wonder whether the status of kids as outrage-targets stems in part from their expression of what everyone else is feeling, namely, “Get me the hell out of this trap! I’m cramped, uncomfortable and vaguely threatened by all these packed-in bodies.” Maybe we’re better at holding onto a veil of composure if there is no kid around to remind us how very thin that veil is.

On our last trip, we sat at the back of the plane with a couple of other families, who, also traveling as families, were sort of bonded into forgiving us and our implacable one-year-old. Also in our section was a small yapping dog, traveling in a bright-plaid travel kennel with its owner.

In my annoyance hierarchy, small, yapping dogs rank several rungs above loud breathers and loud talkers; I am not a fan. And yet, here I was with that child, emanating soothing energy to my daughter, apologetic vibes to my fellow passengers and angry irritation to the yapping dog and its owner. Why couldn’t the woman just make it stop? Put a blanket over it, or something! Anything!

I get it. I am the owner of the small, yapping dog. I am the sweaty guy with intense B.O. I am the loud breather and the loud talker and the fellow who won’t get off his cell phone. I am the target and the perpetrator in the Glareport, where somewhere between 50 and 85 percent of travelers (depending on which survey you read) have said they would much prefer, and in some cases pay extra for, a child-free flight. I am the parent of small children trying to get from point A to point B (and then point C) without losing my mind, the special stuffed animal, the diaper wipes or a child along the way. And I’m about to do it again.

Sylvia is not yet two, so we’re getting by without buying her a seat (parental travel infraction #1). But I’ve already started assembling airplane activities. Perhaps, as suggested by some of the countless traveling-with-kids resources, I’ll bring earplugs for my flight-mates (and/or myself). Maybe, as my sister has done, I’ll enjoy the kindness of a supremely helpful traveling grandparent. Or, as she also has done, I’ll log some time in the lavatory with a screaming child. I do think I’ll pack a tiny box containing a breath of composure that I can open and inhale at any point. Maybe I’ll share it with people sitting around us.

What I’m hoping for, though, is that it will all be okay. A mother friend said she thinks kids draw on our energy, so if we’re stressed out traveling, our kids will express that. As a parent of two different sorts of traveling kids and a friend of others, I don't think this is always true, but it's a good reminder nonetheless. Hence the small box of open-able composure. Plus a plan to summon deep, ease-of-travel confidence on our 7 am flight. Also maybe some Benadryl.

It’s important to me to travel with my kids, to give them the opportunity to explore different places, to see and meet different people, to appreciate the distances, landscapes, foods and cultures that are part of their world. This intention may be a bit grand for our upcoming trip to visit friends and family on the East Coast—but spending time with far-flung loved ones is another reason we travel as a family.

Regardless of age, part of traveling is learning how to travel, a skill set that includes compassion, flexibility and open-mindedness as surely as it does remembering the TSA-mandated 3.4-oz bottles and quart-sized baggie—and the DVD player.

 

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