Recently there was an adorable news story about parents flying with their new baby and giving out a “goodie bag,” including earplugs, to passengers seated nearby in case the baby should make noise. It was not the first story of its kind; several of these well-meaning parents have done this over the years. It is seen as some sort of progress in the relations between those who have children and those who do not: Yes, my children are annoying and you are stuck with them in a small space for x number of hours, but enjoy this chocolate and hope those earplugs block out their noise.
This is the entirely wrong way for the world to proceed.
Children often cannot contain themselves, that’s true. They have problems with volume control. If they can’t say what they want, they cry. Sometimes they cry even when they can say what they want. They’re also entirely unpredictable. Our daughter, who was a very good baby and toddler, screamed her head off on her first international flight, despite having been perfectly well behaved on several domestic flights previously. She settled down after a while and was a model child the rest of our trip, but with kids you just never know. On a recent flight, my son sang the ABCs loudly. Sure, we sshhh’d him a lot, but he’s under 2 years old, so there’s only so much we can do. Duct-taping his mouth shut didn’t seem like an option.
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While adult behavior may be more consistent, are we really so much better? I have sat next to smelly people, drunk people, loud people, lecherous men, overperfumed women, close talkers, a teenager crying loudly over her cheating boyfriend and an old lady who showed me no fewer than 78 photographs of her cats. Yet none of these people ever gave me candy or an apology to improve my situation. I admit to being the annoying passenger myself — a particularly hungover flight in my 20s springs to mind. Yet it never occurred to me to try to ease the experience for my fellow passengers. I simply made minimal eye contact and got through it. I also admit that once, on a long flight while I was pregnant with our first child, I snapped at a child behind me for kicking my seat. His mom, busy with three other children, did nothing to try to stop him, and my limited experience with children did not serve me well in dealing with him.
The idea that parents must apologize for any noise their child makes in public has gone too far. An airplane is not an opera, and there can be no expectation of silence. If you can make it through the loud whir of the engine and the constant pilot and stewardess announcements, you can survive a child being noisy.
The real problem in American life today is that we treat children as something we must hide away until adulthood. The airplane battleground extends to other areas as well. If you’re the type of person who takes your kids places, then you are probably used to the questions: Why would you take your children shopping/to brunch/on trips if you didn’t specifically have to? But what kind of adult does a child become who hasn’t had these necessary life experiences? If we never take our children to restaurants or on flights, or expect a bad reaction when we do, how will they grow up to be the kind of fellow diner or flier we all wish to see?
This isn’t to say that children should run rampant, making as much noise as they’d like whenever they’d like. I think back to myself snapping at the kid on a plane and know that if I had seen his mother making an effort to stop him, even unsuccessfully, I would have given her a sympathetic smile and dealt with it. We absolutely should try to discipline our children to minimize the discomfort of those around us, but bracing adults for the very presence of children sends a bad message. Short of very fancy restaurants or ticketed events, children have a right to be among us as much as the most annoying adult. So take your child places, show her the right way to behave through your own words and actions, and don’t give out earplugs. We’re all in this together, even the cat lady and the crying baby.
Karol Markowicz is a writer in New York City.