The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Have Kid. Will Travel.

In one way, I’m inclined to give Amy Alkon a break, even if she isn’t inclined to give Peggy Root much of a break. After all, I used to complain about “those people,” right up until I became one of “those people.” Many of us have been one of “those people,” in fact. And a month ago, Peggy Root had her turn to be one of “those people.”

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Southwest Airlines has apologized to a San Jose mom who was kicked off a plane along with her unruly 2-year-old son earlier this week.

But Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis told the Mercury News the airline did not regret its decision to yank Pamela Root and her son, Adam, off the plane — which flight attendants made in the interests of safety, she said — just the inconvenience it caused the family.

Root said Friday she accepts Southwest’s apology, “and in the future we just hope that children are not separated from their luggage.”

The crew bounced Root and her son off a flight in Amarillo, Texas, on her way home to San Jose because passengers could not hear preflight safety announcements,

Of course, by “those people” I mean “Those People With The Screaming Kid”™, who dared go anywhere in public with a kid who might make some/a little/a lot of noise.

Apparently, Amy Alkon thinks children — and the parents who chose to have them — shouldn’t be seen or heard. (This is one of those columns bound to get emailed over and over again, and generate tons of comments — from people who can’t stand “those people” and people who have been “those people.” Already, Root has apparently “protected” her Twitter feed from the public, opting not to deal with the inevitable hostile messages she’d otherwise receive.

There is a notion, reflected in numerous blog comments about the incident, that other passengers should “just deal” and “give a kid a break.” This notion is wrong. Parents like Root and others who selfishly force the rest of us to pay the cost of their choices in life aren’t just bothering us; they’re stealing from us. Most people don’t see it this way, because what they’re stealing isn’t a thing we can grab on to, like a wallet. They’re stealing our attention, our time and our peace of mind.

More and more, we’re all victims of these many small muggings every day. Our perp doesn’t wear a ski mask or carry a gun; he wears Dockers and shouts into his iPhone in the line behind us at Starbucks, streaming his dull life into our brains, never considering for a moment whether our attention belongs to him. These little acts of social thuggery are inconsequential in and of themselves, but they add up — wearing away at our patience and good nature and making our daily lives feel like one big wrestling smackdown.

…I know, I know — because I am not a parent I cannot possibly understand how hard it is to keep a child from acting out. Actually, that probably has more to do with the way I was raised — by parents I describe as loving fascists. As a child, I was convinced that I could flap my arms and fly, but the idea that I could ever be loud in a public place that wasn’t a playground simply did not exist for me.

I hear claims that some children are prone to tantrums no matter how exquisitely they are parented. If this describes your child, there’s a solution, and it isn’t plopping him in a crowded metal tube with hundreds of people who can’t escape his screams except by throwing themselves to their deaths at 30,000 feet.

Granted, there sometimes are extenuating circumstances, reasons parents and their little hell-raiser simply must take a plane. Well, actually, there are two: dire family emergency (Granny’s actually dying, not just dying to see the little tyke) and the need for a lifesaving operation for the wee screamer. In all other cases, if there’s any chance a child is still in the feral stage, pop Granny on a flight or gas up the old minivan. It really does come down to this: Your right to bring your screaming child on a plane ends where the rest of our ears begin.

And we wonder why we can’t pass health care reform in this country? (I see the correlation, but it’ll take another blog post for me to explain it.)

Alkon stopped well short of suggesting that Southwest should have thrown Root and son to their deaths at 30,000 feet. So I’ll stop short of suggesting she would have approved if the airline had done so. Her hearty approval of Southwest’s decision to boot Root and son, and her begrudging Root the apology and compensation she got from the airline (though one wonders if Alkon would have Root apologize to the rest of the passengers, and then compensate them for lost travel time), makes it pretty clear that as far as she’s concerned people with kids should stay they hell home with their kids.

Unless we can absolutely guarantee that our kids will be quiet, or at least keep it down to a whisper (keeping it down to a “dull roar” is obviously unacceptable). Since no parents, or none I’ve ever met, can guarantee that the only remaining choice is to keep the kids at home and stay at home with them if we don’t have someone to watch them.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re not one of those parents who somehow remain blissfully unaware of how their child affects or impacts other people. I can remember very clearly, once, asking wait staff at a Thai restaurant near our then-home to box up our dinner and give us our check almost as soon as the food arrive. Why? Because Parker, who was around two-years-old at the time, started into a tantrum (one of those where the kid throws his head back and goes rigid, making it impossible to do anything with him). It was clearly not going to stop anytime soon, and we decided to leave.

My reasoning was that I could see he wasn’t going to quiet down, and our efforts to quiet him weren’t working, because he couldn’t tell us exactly what was the matter and we were guessing wrong. So, rather than ruin other people’s dining experience we’d take our kid and our food and go home. (This wasn’t a “fine dining” restaurant, but one where people could reasonably expect a relatively quiet dinner. It it had been McDonald’s we might have stayed put.)

For some time after that, we didn’t eat out. We opted to order out until Parker was a bit older and better at keeping the volume down. And we got better at our efforts to help him keep the volume down. Those efforts were considerable, and mostly invisible, to anyone around us — especially those who don’t have kids, some of whom often commented to us on how quiet our kid had been. I say invisible because they didn’t see the silent ballet going on between the hubby and me.

Of course, no one’s there to see us scheduling our flight, dinner or other event around our kid’s naptime. If it’s a meal of some event where the kid should probably be conscious, we’d schedule it before or after naptime, preferring “non-peak” times when it’s less crowded and there’s less of a wait, making sure the kid was well-rested and “tanked-up” or well fed beforehand, and finishing up clearing out within the “time window” we estimated before the kid got bored/tired/cranky and — of course — loud.

If it’s a flight, we schedule it during naptime, and make sure the kid is “tanked-up” and diapered at least 10 minutes before boarding or take-off. If possible, we’ll also wear him out before the flight. The last time we travelled with Dylan, we schedule both flights around his naptime, and took turns walking him up and down the the area near the gate, to make sure he was good and tired by takeoff.

And, we have a well-stocked “bag of tricks” for the period when the child is conscious, during take-off and landing. It’s stocked with extra bottles and formula, pacifiers for dealing with ear pressure during takeoff and landing, granola bars, tupperware containers of Cheerios, diapers, teether toys, etc. These are the necessary props for the “silent ballet” between the hubby and I, during which we almost wordlessly figure out the kids needs, communicate them to each other, and negotiate whose “turn” it is to take the kid and give the other a brief rest.

If we’re exhausted and the kid is quiet for most of the trip, we’ve succeeded. If you’re a fellow traveller you might even say to us “Your son was so quiet during the flight.” Pardon us if we’re too exhausted to respond, due to our efforts to keep the kid — and by association, you — quiet and happy.

This is where I might fault Root a bit, for getting on the plane with a hungry, cranky two-year-old. But she’s apparently learned from the experience, and adopted a different strategy.

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Pamela Root’s 2-year-old son was screaming for the Southwest Airlines plane to “Go! Plane! Go!”

“I want Daddy!” he shouted. Over and over again.

Despite her embarrassment, the stay-at-home mom remained confident that once the plane took off and she fed him, Adam would calm down and take a nap — just as he had on the half-dozen other plane rides with Mom.

…Pamela Root, 38, said she thought she had a foolproof flying routine with her son. She would wait until takeoff to feed Adam so his ears wouldn’t hurt. Then, she would get him to take a nap. The routine always made him a bit cranky but never out of control, she said. There was always the bag of trucks and books about trucks for a backup.

…Yes, she’s mortified, but Root admits to learning a lesson herself. When she rebooked her flight home Tuesday, she chose a 5 p.m. departure and fed Adam well before takeoff. How did he do?

“He had his moments,” she said. “I warned him what would happen if he acted up, that we’d get kicked off the plane.”

But soon enough, a nap kicked in and “he behaved beautifully.”

And so it goes with parenting. You can plan things to the best of your ability, and arm yourself with the strategies and techniques that have always worked in the past. But our kids grow and change, and their needs grow and change along with them. Unfortunately, we don’t get advance warning of those changes. It doesn’t arrive via email, fax, or text message. No, we usually get the same public announcement as everyone else within earshot: the rules of the game have changed, and your playbook is now out of date.

From there, we can chose to make a hasty retreat to some private space (home or the car, whichever is closest) in which our little one can “work it out” without disturbing the peace. Otherwise we have to make it up as we go along, and hope it works. That’s pretty much parenting in a nutshell: you make it up as you go along and hope it works, until it stops working and you have to make up something news, etc. Sometimes the only thing you can do is hold your child, try to comfort him, and offer a silent prayer to the universe that he really will calm down once the plane takes-off or touches down, because you don’t know what else to do.

In the moment, however, you’re trying your best, but getting it “wrong” and getting it “wrong” in public; two things for which our society has little tolerance or empathy, specially when it comes to parents. Most people are unwilling to attempt even the degree of balance that Kate Harding did in her post on the Root saga. (Which bears the mark of someone who, though childless, has some knowledge of and experience with children.)

My opinion: As a society, we do not have enough respect for harried moms (and dads, but it’s usually moms) or sympathy for cranky kids, generally speaking. I believe this is an important feminist issue. I believe any adult who travels by air and claims she’s never wanted to scream “Go, plane, go!” at the top of her lungs while sitting on a tarmac is probably lying. I also believe, however, that unless he has special needs that make public screaming both more likely and far more difficult to end, a toddler hollering in a closed space for a prolonged period about something other than physical pain is very unlikely to evoke much sympathy. And the adult in charge has a responsibility to try to calm him and reinforce that this is inappropriate public behavior.

Before parents start huffing that I obviously don’t have kids or know what it’s like — and you’re right, I don’t — let me clarify a few things about those last two sentences. First, the key word is “try.” Some toddlers simply will not shut up for love or gummi bears. I get this. I’ve worked in daycare. I’ve been a nanny. I have nieces and nephews, one of whom does have special needs that made him extremely tantrum-prone when he was young. And of course his parents still had the same responsibility (not to mention natural desire) to try to calm him — which they took very seriously, though it was often a losing battle. So I try to give all parents the benefit of the doubt, not knowing their situation, when the screaming starts. And even when it doesn’t stop for a while. If I can see that the adult is trying to get the outburst in hand, and the kid is simply having none of it, I chide myself for my own knee-jerk uncharitable thoughts and try to focus instead on how frustrated that parent must be, what a crappy position she finds herself in. I believe this is The Decent Thing to Do. But at the same time, there really are parents out there who do nothing, or almost nothing, when their kids start making life miserable for everyone else on a plane or in a restaurant or in a store — and I reserve the right to smugly judge them, dammit.

But chances are you’ll have to make it up in the middle of dealing with a tantruming child and the inevitably parenting “drive-by.”

Where to begin? Well, you’ll have to go read the post linked above. You might also want to stop by and see what Liz has to say about the recent Newsweek feature article all about “Mommy Madness” and some Kooky new book by Judith Warner. I haven’t read the article or the book-neither of which was specifically aimed at me, as a man-but, as a parent, I can relate to the frustration Liz and the blogger at Chez Miscarriage express.

You see, one of the first things I learned about being a parent is that you will never need to ask for advice, because it will be given to you wholly unsolicited. Also, you will never have to ask how you’re doing, because there will almost always be someone on hand waiting to critique your parenting.

…It’s all more than a little exhausting and frustrating, especially when layered on top of the truly challenging, and often tiring, job that is parenting. So, if you don’t have kids, or have kids that are long since grown-up or at least in puberty, and you should come across a parent struggling with a screaming infant or toddler while preparing a bottle or snack, or a parent having to deal with disciplining a child in public, instead of mouthing off, try this: a silent, supportive smile. (One caveat being that if you see a clearly abusive situation occurring, then perhaps you should speak up.)

And if you’re a new parent, I highly suggest developing a stare that says “leave me the fuck alone” in no uncertain terms.

I’m not saying that Southwest was entirely wrong. Not being on the plane (but having been in similar situations) I can only guess that it was a judgement call on the airline’s part. I don’t know how loud the kid was, but apparently his decibels were enough to drown out the safety announcements. They do have the safety and comfort of their passengers to consider. After all, people aren’t allowed to smoke on a plane (anymore). Nor are we allowed to listen music, watch DVD’s, etc. without headphones. And, while controversial, airlines have devised several policies concerning obese passengers — from bumping passengers on overbooked flights to requiring obese passengers to pay for extra seats — after getting complaints from travelers who “who did not have a comfortable flight because the person next to them infringed on their seat,” meaning — for lack of a better phrase — there was noticeable spillover. Perhaps airlines, dealing with a change in the size of some travelers since their planes were built and unable to simply retro-fit planes with larger seats (thus meaning fewer passengers per flight, etc.), airlines have to make it up as they go along.

Pamela Root doesn’t strike me as the “slacker” parent (to borrow Harding’s phrase) who make no effort to quiet her child. She had a strategy that worked before, and the “bag of trucks and books about trucks” that had worked as a back-up in the past. For whatever reason, they didn’t work this time. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in a position to gather her things and leave, like when we walked out of that Thai restaurant I mentioned earlier. In the same limited space Southwestern had to deal with, she had to make up as she went along.

In that sense, there’s no reason to label Southwest as hating children or to sentence Root and the rest of us to house arrest until our children reach puberty.

Wherever the passengers on the plan were headed — whether San Jose was their final destination or they were traveling onward from there — their flight path interested with that unavoidable point where comfort, safety, compassion and consideration intersect — or collide.

Really, that’s where we all live — at the point where comfort, safety, compassion and consideration intersect and sometimes collide. And we’re all making up as we go along. Maybe sometimes that requires giving each other a break.

3 Comments

  1. I wonder if part of the problem had to do with the change in Southwest Air policy. It used to be that families with children were allowed to board first. This allowed the families to get everything squared away before the rest of the passengers got on. Of course, given the “cattle call” nature of Southwest boarding, there were complaints from the other passengers about the preferable treatment, and Southwest changed the policy in response. So it may be a case of “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

    Now, in my case, by son is a “low functioning” autistic. So Southwest Air, which we use, still allows us to board first. As with most parents, I have all kinds of toys and food, etc. I also buy around a half dozen pair of disposable earplugs. When we get on, we go all the way to the back bulkhead. This means that there is nobody in back of us to be bothered. I grab the flight attendant, who has time, since the other passengers aren’t on yet. I tell him/her that my son is autistic, and that I have earplugs, just in case, if anyone needs them. I then tell the passengers in front of us, as they sit, the same thing. In all the times we’ve flown, I’ve handed out earplugs to one passenger, and one passenger moved. But nobody got annoyed if (when) my boy started to manifest autistic behavior. (Note: don’t tell anyone, but I’ve noticed that air marshals generally sit in the seats just in front of us. They are relaxed about my boy, since they have more important things to take care of.) The flight attendants have universally made a special point of watching out for us, by talking to the other passengers, giving us extra snacks, and, if possible, keeping the seat next to us free.

  2. Unless you want to outlaw kids on planes there will always be some, hopefully limited, disruptions. I have noticed that sometimes the child is crying and screaming because they are in pain. Children’s ears and sinuses can fail to compensate as the air pressure changes. I was on a flight where a kid was perfectly quiet and calm as the plane taxied and took off. But then the little guy got this look like something was bothering him and he started screaming as the flight hit cruise altitude.

    I understood what he was going through because my sinuses were also fine on the ground. Then, as we gained altitude, they started to feel like they would explode. I almost cried myself. Fortunately I had brought some decongestants along. But had them in my carry-on luggage that the stewardess had grabbed and stuffed into an overhead bin before I could get it out. Once at altitude they turned off the seat belt light and, while my eyes bulged and I wanted to scream, I was able to get to the drug. A couple of blasts and in a few minutes my sinuses equalized and the pain disappeared.

    The kid screamed bloody murder the whole flight. I talked to the mother and offered her an unopened box of decongestant, it had a listing for a childrens dose, she didn’t want to use it. I really don’t blame her. A strange man offering drugs isn’t likely to put a mother at ease. The little guy screamed for the whole flight but quieted as soon as we descended and the pressure went back up. Poor kid.

  3. When there are kids in public spaces many of us are willing to make allowances for them to be kids, including noise. But knowing several of the “lovable fascist” type of parents, and your own described tactics, serious disturbances should be able to be kept to a minimum.

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