When my daughter was three months old, we flew cross-country to San Diego and she dozed the whole way. After the plane reached the gate, as the passengers were all getting up, a man in the row behind us looked down and said, "Oh my God! There was a baby in that seat!"
I always had a fair amount of good fortune when it came to traveling with the kid. Motion makes her sleepy and to this day she falls asleep during a car ride of any length – unless she’s driving. It works on planes and trains, too. I have seen her fall asleep while our plane was taking off.
Up until the age of about 5, however, she was hell in airports. I once had to chase her, bags in hand, across a terminal as she ran up and along the backs of unoccupied seats at the gate. It was if she was doing the obstacle course in toddler basic training.
How fortunate I was, though, that it wasn’t the other way around. What if the kid slept in airports and ran amok on planes? Even in the airport, she wasn’t a screamer. More of a silent attack force. A tiny ninja in overalls.
I bring all this up because I’m worried about the way passengers, and apparently at least one flight attendant, regard children on planes. In fact, I worry a bit about how Americans regard children, generally.
And I do see the other side. I do see parents who do nothing to prevent children who are old enough to know better from annoying other passengers – kicking seat backs, yelling and pushing. I know someone who was recently on a long flight on which a child played a noisy video game without headphones for hours. I’ve never seen an adult passenger do that, and I can’t imagine why the child’s parents allowed it.
I know there are parents who fail in their duty to raise good, decent citizens who will respect the rights of others. I’ve met the children and I’ve met the adults they become. But sometimes it’s hard to immediately tell the difference between those neglectful parents and the ones who are having a bad day with good kids.
What troubles me most is the animosity I see, on planes and sometimes in this country in general, toward all children, all the time. I’ve seen passengers complain bitterly about the behavior of babies and very young toddlers who clearly are not old enough to know better. I’ve seen adults bristle at a child’s normal, mild fidgeting and restlessness. And I’ve seen adults get very angry at parents who are taking every reasonable measure they can to calm, distract and correct their children.
In some other countries, adults crouch down to address strangers’ children, to talk to them affectionately and play with them. They behave as if it was a treat to see a little kid out and about. Kind of the way Americans will treat a stranger’s small dog, but not a stranger’s small child
I suspect I’ll get comments suggesting that I’m advocating lax child-rearing and the self-esteem movement. So let me say that I’ve never been a fan of the self-esteem movement. (I used to tell the kid, "Forget esteeming yourself. Esteem me.") I think constant praise without correction leads, eventually, to trouble.
Yet I know so many pleasant, engaging and well-behaved children that I can’t believe we are really raising a nation of brats. These children – and, yes, teenagers – are not just small adults. They have a particular energy, spontaneity, humor and inquisitiveness that tends to come with youth, and I like it.
Every society has children. And I wonder whether maybe, if we valued ours just a little, we could tolerate them better. Or maybe even enjoy their company, now and then.