9 Aug 2023

Children on Planes

Most harassed parents would agree that taking a very small child on a plane (or, to a lesser extent, on a long train journey) tops the league of difficult travelling challenges. Both modes of transport demand that passengers are seated for long periods and planes, in particular, are extremely cramped. The likelihood is that both planes and trains will be fully booked during the holiday season so fidgeting and unhappy toddlers will be surrounded by a phalanx of observers, some of them none too friendly. Most parents will view upcoming journeys as a total nightmare.

But does it always have to be like this? There are some measures you can take that will minimise the ordeal and ensure that your child’s behaviour isn’t unbearably taxing.

Talk about the Trip

Toddlers and small children are often carted from place to place by frazzled parents with a minimum of preparation or explanation. It is no wonder that they object to this treatment and choose to show their agency the only way they can, by screaming the place down.

Explain to them about the upcoming trip, what planes or trains are like. Talk to them about cabin crew, seat belts, trays, on-flight meals and all the other paraphernalia of travel. Above all, explain that they will have to stay in their seat for most of the journey. If you can find a book about trains or aeroplanes, read it to them before the trip.

Come Prepared

Obviously you will need to pack snacks, toys and distractions. The key is to come armed with a range of items. Don’t just opt for a tablet or games console, include books, colouring pencils and paper, a favourite cuddly toy as well. Make sure you’ve got plenty of tempting things to eat and drink – pack them all separately so that you can prolong the eating process and be vigilant about offering food at regular intervals – hunger and thirst are invariably tantrum-triggering.

On the Plane

Now the real challenge begins. You’ve done your best to prepare your child and to come armed with all the necessary distractions. How are they going to behave? And how are the people around you going to react?

Most reasonable adults will accept that very small children are hardly responsible for their actions. They do not understand why they must be confined to their seats, they have no concept of time, they are used to moving freely, they are tired and fractious. All these sensations are likely to make them restless and noisy, and they may well start kicking the chair in front of them, invading a stranger’s space, or just screaming. However, their behaviour will be much more tolerable to adults sitting nearby if you, the parent, are clearly doing your best to contain your child’s behaviour, distract them, soothe them and calm them down.

So, if you are heard audibly intervening, for example saying things like “don’t kick the seat, it will bump the man in front” or “I think we’d better turn this down – it’s very noisy for all the people who are trying to go to sleep”, you will be clearly demonstrating that you are trying to inculcate a sense of empathy in your toddler, and are encouraging awareness of the impact of their behaviour on other people.

Most adults will forgive your toddler’s worst transgressions if you demonstrate clearly that you are working hard to deal with them and you are striving to moderate your child’s behaviour. That really is the best you can do in the circumstances. However, if you blithely switch off as soon as you’re settled into your seat, plug in your headphones and resolutely ignore the developing mayhem, you will rapidly become deeply unpopular. Your neighbours will observe that you have absconded from all responsibility, that you are making no effort to control your child, whose behaviour is impinging negatively on them, and will give full vent to their disapproval.

Your journey will be considerably eased by friendly and supportive cabin crew, so it is important that both you, and your child, are unfailingly polite to them and grateful for everything they do. If your child can speak, make sure they say “please” and “thank you” – if they don’t do it voluntarily, it’s fine to keep repeating “say please” and “say thank you” as it demonstrates that you’re aware of the importance of good manners.

If cabin crew are amenable, they will be supportive when the time comes, as it invariably will, for you to leave your seat and walk your child around, take your child to the toilet, or simply stand somewhere and joggle them into unconsciousness. The more grateful and polite you appear to be to crew and fellow passengers alike, the more you smile and acknowledge assistance, the more friendly and supportive everyone will be.

When the journey finally comes to an end, remember to say a heartfelt thank you and farewell to the crew, and induce your child to give them a friendly wave. The better you behave the more likely they are to be kind and helpful to the next frazzled parent they encounter.


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