Lessons on an Airplane

I spent much of last weekend in airport terminals and on planes, traveling to and from Los Angeles. One of my travel buddies talked to the gate agent about changing our seats. The transaction went well, and my friend thanked her for being so helpful. “We try,” the gate agent answered. “We really do always try to make our customers happy. And when they’re cooperative and friendly about it, it makes a difference.”

Cooperation. Friendliness. Two traits that in tandem make a difference both for the travelers and the agents who have to deal with them. When an agent’s day can go like this, it makes a more pleasant day for everyone.

The converse is also true. One fowl attitude can ransack the whole travel experience. The woman in front of me on one plane was boasting about her behavior on her last flight. She was seated in front of a family with small children who were apparently kicking her seat. The woman said, “I had to give those parents a training lesson on how to parent. When I told them about managing their kids, the dad answered, ‘They’re just kids.’” She went on to describe her response to that. The next time her seat got kicked, she yelled and tossed part of her drink over the back of her seat on the family behind. “I figured,” she concluded, “that if they were going to make my flight miserable, I may as well make theirs miserable too.”

It’s hard to travel with kids. This I know well. It’s hard for kids to behave perfectly when their normal sleep and eating schedules are thrown off by travel. It’s hard for parents to parent perfectly when they’re tired too and just trying to survive the trip. And I’m even one who thinks that as a generation, we’re doing a pretty poor job of raising kids to be respectful, polite and self-disciplined!

Sometimes we parents give in to a kid’s demands knowing full well that it’s rewarding their bad behavior, reasoning it will get them to be quiet and not bother the lady in front of them. Yet I also know, as a parent (and not an awesome one at that), the job isn’t about getting kids to behave perfectly in public but about teaching them how. And there’s a difference. Trying to get kids to behave perfectly in public focuses only on the moment at hand and cares only about immediate results. But teaching kids means enduring the public humiliation of the moment and using it as yet another teaching opportunity. It’s looking at the long-term results, not the short-term gain.

This is the burden of parenting kids who must one day leave home and be constructive human beings. It’s not always easy. And when a feisty passenger in the seat in front of you tosses unsolicited criticism and soda at you and your family because your child is acting like a kid instead of a constructive adult, it’s spirit crushing. It’s demoralizing. And it just doesn’t help anyone.

But it’s like a salve on an open sore when an empathetic bystander takes the time to say, “Honey, I know it seems crazy now, but these days will pass. It’s hard work but keep it up. Don’t worry about what everyone else around you is thinking. You’re doing okay.”

The woman in front of me, boasting of her parent-training techniques, didn’t know what the gate agent knew. She didn’t trust that a family might be trying really hard to keep everyone happy. She failed to comprehend how an empathetic word could have bolstered that little family’s spirits and made the whole trip a whole lot more pleasant – for everyone. She failed to see the irony of her own childish behavior, throwing her soda at children to teach them a lesson.

For any time I saw a child whining or throwing a hissy fit in public and quietly judged the parents, I am so sorry. I hope to be an encourager. I hope to be cooperative and friendly, one who lifts a spirit instead of tearing one down. I hope to be the kind of person who behaves better than the myriad of grown-up children acting badly on airplanes, then boasting about it.

(And I’m climbing off my slippery little soapbox now.)