On Traveling and Children

Quick note: Starting tomorrow, March 15, I will be reading and signing copies of my new novel, The Past is Never, at bookstores including The Tattered Cover (Denver), Off Square Books (Oxford, MS), Turnrow Books (Greenwood, MS), and Lemuria Books (Jackson, MS). I’ll be on a panel at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans on March 24. You can see the full schedule in the sidebar on my website and I’ll update this information frequently. Please come and say hello. I’d love to see you!

I spent the past weekend in Tampa at a conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Travel is fun, but draining. I’d scheduled a 6:30 a.m. flight home on Sunday morning and only later realized that it was the day we switch to Daylight Saving Time and the flight would actually feel more like 5:30 a.m. Add that to the two hour time difference between Tampa and Denver and I’m on a plane at 3:30 in the morning. At the airport at 2 a.m. Awake by 1 a.m. At some point, I began to wonder why I’d gone to bed at all.

On the plane, I tried to sleep. I had a window seat next to a mother traveling with her young son. All three of us snoozed on and off during the first hour of the flight, but airline seats are cramped and uncomfortable and soon most of the passengers were awake. I read a book and worked half a crossword puzzle, but I was too groggy to think straight. Eventually I settled for scanning the news headlines on my iPad. The kid in my row turned on his own electronic device to watch cartoons. He did not have headphones and his mother kept reaching over to turn down the volume on his device. I could almost hear her anxiety as she cast a sideways glance at me, checking to see if I looked annoyed. In fact, it wasn’t much noise at all and I smiled to reassure her I was fine. I’ve never had to travel with a child and I can only imagine how hard it is to keep them entertained during a long, boring flight.

Once the sun came up, people started lifting the window shades and the plane filled with natural light. After spending the past three days in a convention center full of fluorescent bulbs, the morning sunshine was a treat. I lifted the shade on the window to my right. It was still very early and the only thing to see outside were clouds. The little boy in my row leaned forward to look out the window and said in a loud voice: “Are we there yet?” His mother looked mortified and she shushed him, but I laughed and said I was wondering the same thing. I saw her relax. She looked relieved. I wondered what she’d experienced in the past to make her so nervous about offending a fellow passenger.

This little boy was probably about five years old. He was cute. What five-year-old child isn’t? And he was, as far as I could tell, perfectly well behaved. I’m sure it was hard for him to sit still for so many hours. He fidgeted. He asked for snacks. At one point he started to sing to himself and his mother stopped him. He was an ordinary child and not the least bit annoying. I wanted to reassure the mother, but I am loathe to comment on the behavior of someone’s child, even when I am paying a compliment. After all, I can’t know what her expectations are for this child. I can’t know what might turn his ordinary behavior into a tantrum, but I’m sure she’s highly attuned to his moods. So I said nothing, but made a point to smile and be pleasant.

When the plane landed, our flight attendants asked everyone to stay seated to allow a family making a tight connection to deplane first. We did, and the family rushed to the front of the plane, at which point the rest of us began to gather our belongings. As most of us prepared to exit in the customary way—from front to back—one woman and her teenage son (I’m assuming) pushed forward from the back of the plane and stood in the center of the aisle. They were blocking the overhead bins and two rows of passengers, but they refused to budge. They were determined to exit first, even if it meant disrupting the deplaning process. The woman nearly ran her suitcase over the little boy from my row, who’d stood up and reached across the aisle to his father. The boy’s mother pulled him out of the way of the rude woman just in time.

I now regret not saying something to that mother. I could have said something nice about her son and maybe she’d realize that not all travelers are boorish pigs who hate other people’s children. We’re all just doing our best to get where we are going and a tiny bit of courtesy goes a long way. I cannot fathom a future where this mother and this child push to the front of a line or deliberately slam luggage into a stranger. I cannot imagine this young boy growing up to be a jerk. That teen boy with the pushy mom, however? I don’t have as much faith in his future behavior.

I know I can’t predict anything based on a few early hours on an airplane, but let me say this: if you travel with young children and you do everything you can to make sure the children are entertained, reasonably quiet, and respectful of other passengers; thank you. You’re doing great. Even if your child has an occasional meltdown, it’s fine. Most of us understand that children are people. They aren’t robots you can turn on or off at a moment’s notice. We don’t expect you to have perfect control over every statement or gesture your child makes. We can tell that you are trying your best. We appreciate it. And I can’t speak for everyone, but some of us don’t mind hearing a young boy sing a song to himself first thing in the morning. Some of us even find it kind of charming.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson