How Should I Handle Screaming Kids Inflight .. Who Just Won’t Stop?

What started out as a fantastic, albeit early (3:30am alarm!) travel day yesterday turned sour in the afternoon. A three and a half hour delay for my connecting flight, with very little information forthcoming, had me worn out. Finally taxiing out I was looking forward to just closing my eyes when…

.. the child seated behind me started kicking my seat. And didn’t stop. His younger sibling started screaming. Then they both started screaming. At first the parents did nothing. Then the father reached across the aisle to stop the kid from kicking me, and his wife scolded him for it. They started fighting. And it got worse from there.

It turns out that despite advances in technology, there’s no such thing as “Screaming Children Immediately Behind You Cancelling Headsets.”

And there’s also no such thing as “Children Kicking Your Seatback Cancelling Headsets,” either.

I’ve often said that I rarely get excised over noisy children. Their ears could hurt, and they don’t know how to express it. They may not know what’s going on, and could be scared, by turbulence. Neither one of those was taking place here, but I almost always temper any frustrations based on the behavior of the parents. Most parents do their best to try to calm their kids, and not to disturb their neighbors. Some seem to just ‘check out’ once on the flight. I know it’s hard, but simply sitting there as though nothing is amiss frustrates me most.

This might have been the worst. Parents arguing instead of minding their children, escalating the situation, the hostile environment only made the kids even more unhappy – and louder.

Perhaps I should feel for the kids in this circumstance, but I’ll be selfish and say that I felt for myself. I wanted to close my eyes, I was tired, I lacked patience. And frankly, I didn’t know what to do so my empathy would have been wasted.

I know a decent amount about travel, I think. I know how to handle most situations, play the odds, make backup plans, get rebooked quickly when needed, find cheap prices.. you name it.

But my etiquette with children, especially other peoples’ children? I’m at a loss. With shrieking behind me, kicking my seat, is there anything I could have done? I didn’t say anything I figured that my adding stress to the parents, who were already fighting wouldn’t have made things better. The flight attendant on the regional jet ignored it, I could have said something to her but then what? Would she have been able to stop it? I had visions of a situation escalating between her and the parents, followed by a diversion. I just wanted to get home.

Of course the flight eventually ended, I didn’t nap but then I would have been tired this morning either way.

What would you have done? Is there anything I could have done? What would you have said?

Bad things happen in travel – weather, mechanicals – sometimes you just have to take it as it comes and deal with it. Should screeching and kicking my seatback just be one of those?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well, I would have gotten up and thanked the father for his efforts in trying to get the children settled down and the one child to stop kicking the seat. The child’s mother may have gotten the hint.

    Basically, I don’t blame the child but hold the parent(s) responsible for the child’s behavior in a restaurant, on a plane, etc.

  2. Gary I think your case was easy, as the parents were not doing their part. That being said I am amazed at people that don’t have kids and how intolerant they have become, as if they never were kids themselves.

  3. I’m with Paul (47). While even the best children can misbehave or melt down during travel, children and their parents need to be held accountable for ridiculous behavior like this. This was not the “infant crying during air pressure changes” sort of issue, and saying that “it’s not the child’s fault” makes us all enablers and reinforcers of poor parenting. Kids need boundaries for their own sake as much as for others. If the parent is negligent, I’m going to engage directly with the child. I would never touch someone’s child, but I will raise my voice. It’s amazing what that can do with a child to stop that kind of misbehavior on a flight. And if the parents object, tell them “Then don’t make me be the parent.”

    Too bad Gary didn’t take pictures of them and post for shaming purposes.

  4. If the flight wasn’t full, it may have been worth asking the FA if there was another seat you could move to. I wound up seated behind some incredibly smelly travelers once (who of course wanted to blast the A/C) and when I politely asked the FA if moving was a possibility, she actually thanked me and gave me a new seat right away.

  5. Excuse me, I’m Gary. What’s your name? Hello *kicking child*. It sounds like you are frustrated, but hurts my back when you kick my seat. Please stop.

    You’d be surprised what children can handle when their emotions are validated and you respectful and frankly speak to them.

  6. Unfortunately 30k+ ft up is no time to reprimand the kiddos. If there is a meltdown in process being confined and dropping the hammer isnt going to work well. Even though you are a parent, if your kid has picked this time to meltdown you drew the short straw. Hopefully these parents tried everything possible to soothe the kiddos. But it doesnt sound like it from Gary’s explanantion. I do find the discussion fascinating. From the dolts who think its ok to drug your kid w Benadryl to the quiet and confronters. Not sure there is a correct play there. Probably everyone is going to suffer thru that flight which is unfortunate. I just thank the Mileage Gods that my kids are seasoned and well mannered children – it probably has to do with all the beatings I give them to keep them in line 😉

  7. Wow, you sure did open up a can of worms :). The few comments about drugging them with Benadryl, saying no children allowed in premium cabins, or even allowed anywhere on an airplane, are utterly ridiculous.. I can only hope they are all tongue in cheek.

    As a parent myself I can see both sides of the argument. In this situation it appears the parents were not doing as much as they could (offer toys, games, or at least try to distract the kids with something else). Though at times, especially little ones, will throw tantrums that you just can’t control or calm down. I would try speaking to the child calmly and directly at their level and asking to stop. A little white lie about a back injury may help, though just saying that it hurts may work too. It worked when the FA did this with my own 2.5 year old when she was throwing a fit :). As another user mentioned children can be more likely to listen to another adult compared to their own parents.

  8. Seems like we all forgot that we were kids not so long ago. A child is a child. Parents are the ones to blame for this behavior. And FA should be trained to handle this situations properly instead of filing their nails!

  9. To commenters who think those of us without children have forgotten what it is to be a child:

    My siblings and I knew that we were expected to behave like “little adults” on airplanes. This is probably why none of us set so much as a toe on a plane until we were within a year, or at most two, of double-digit-age.

    “Toys” consisted of playing cards, and I do remember a few of those magnetized checkers/word games. Also, books. Window time was split evenly among us, but if you misbehaved, that was that and you lost the window and had to sit in the middle. Kicking seats. Kicking seats?! Seriously, you are speaking a foreign tongue.

    “Please” and “thank you” were the main parts of our language, as respect for others was a foundational lesson. Of course, this was also the era of wearing skirts or business attire on planes. It was also the era when you didn’t expect the immediate world to help you take care of/raise your children or sympathize/commiserate with the outcome of your choice to have them.

    And somehow, I think that even if the economy class flight from Maui was full and “there was no room to stretch out,” my parents still would not have tolerated any kind of misbehavior, let alone screaming or kicking seats. Of course, this was a time when it seemed that people had a much more astute sense of when and where that kind of behavior was tolerable–oh that’s right, no time and nowhere.

    Plus one, no, let’s make it 10K, to Tenmoc who stated that having children is both your choice and your responsibility. Couldn’t agree more.

  10. Young children seem to frequently respond to strangers in a substantially different way than they do to parents. You may be able to use that to your advantage. Giving the children a “look” can make them react in a different way than they have been already behaving in-flight.

    Also, having a trinket or two for the children may work, assuming the parents are ok with the trinket and having it given to the kids. I’ve handed over lost hotel keys and empty cups and seen kids play with this those things far longer than I would have ever imagined. Sometimes, having some stickers seems to have worked well to silence some otherwise tantrum-throwing children whose parents were at a loss for what to do to settle the situation. [The TSA at some airports do this kind of thing with TSA badge stickers — it seems typical of the TSA wasting money on things that are unnecessary but the stickers and stranger-response thing does seem effective in changing children’s behavior … for the better or for the worse.] I’ve also seen others use origami to make various things that the strangers’ kids can use to entertain themselves. Interrupting the tantrum somehow may be a sufficient game changer to make for a far more peaceful flight. Why parents don’t do the same thing? Many do try, but some just need some additional help and exposure on how to do better.

  11. as a parent, I wouldn’t have a problem with you telling my kid (obviously, politely), to stop kicking. In fact, some kids behave better when told by a stranger than by their own parents. Is that an admission of parental incompetence? hey, i’ll take whatever i can get 😉

  12. and, of course, if you tell my child off with sheer annoyance and without requisite empathy, I just might ask them to kick some more… 😉

  13. I hear two things here…..screaming kids & kicking seats. Obviously screaming kids are an issue that is very tough to deal with (and there is a major difference between a screaming “kid” and a crying infant). Kicking seats is another. If the seat is being kicked it is usually not an infant :-). When I traveled with my young children I requested the last row…1) to be close to the bathrooms and in case they were crying, etc. I would limit the number of other passengers I would inconvenience. Today of course no one “gives a damn” about anyone else.
    To AM, if your kid was kicking my seat and you required me to perform your parental duties, AND I HEARD YOU TELL YOUR CHILD TO KEEP KICKING…..I would than proceed to KICK YOUR Axx.

  14. As a mom of a toddler, I’m painfully aware of this. We practice at home with chairs to demo what it means by not kicking. Of course the kid will still do it, but it still parents’ responsibilities to stop bad behavior and be consistent. Gary should talk directly to the kid, asked them to stop. I also agreed tat kids behaved much better in premium class. They get more attention from FAs if needed. They can’t kick chairs and they’ve more rooms to stretch. Lets just say its a lot of work to keep toddlers quiet for a USA-Asia flight. And we get a LOT of dirty looks.

  15. I don’t get it…Why do parents think it’s ok to travel with kids until they are old enough to behave? My folks did not take my sister and I on planes until we were old enough to mind. Same with restaurants and movie theaters. Unless a child has a medical emergency and needs treatment somewhere, I blame the parents for putting children in this situation.

    That means vacations can wait for the kids. They don’t need to visit G-Ma and G-Pa across the country etc..Take them by car. It’s just common sense.

    I blame the parents 100% for this lack of judgment.

  16. Funny this conversation should be taking place the same week as another flyer was sentenced to a few months in prison for smacking someone else’s kid on a plane. Glad you didn’t think to do that, Gary.

    That said, I have three children and they are now ages 32 to 39. They are all very accomplished in their own fields with advanced degrees and wonderful families of their own. And believe it or not, when we used to fly to Florida with them to visit my parents, Benadryl was NOT the exception. Amazing how times have changed, Sound like at this point in time, someone would be calling DYFUS but trust me, they turned out pretty well!

    As for me, I have more problems with the a$$holes who feel that they can’t hold on to their armrests when they stand up but have to grab my seat back and rock me to death!

  17. @Gary: “A three and a half hour delay for my connecting flight, with very little information forthcoming, had me worn out.”

    Not being nearly as frequent a flyer as you Gary, I can’t imagine a 3-hour delay would have me worn out! It might wear out my children, my mother-in-law, maybe even my wife if we were traveling with kids… But if I were traveling alone? With lounge access?? Sheesh, I’d almost welcome the extra time to unwind… 🙂

    @Jersey Joe: guess who’d get kicked off the plane. I am zen. And occasionally I troll uptight frequent flyers 🙂

    @Steven S: Benadryl is still our friend, we just keep it quiet 🙂

  18. @AM – rolling delay, where it made no sense to go back to the lounge, lounge had no info on the flight — gate had no info — flight departure time kept updating to five minutes before current time. No seating in the Eagle gate area at all. And the end of a day that started with a 330am alarm. So yes I was pretty tired.

  19. I am surprised at the number of people who think you should do nothing. It would be a completely different matter if the parents were actively engaged in trying to control the situation but since they weren’t a politely worded request is entirely reasonable. Whether to direct it at the father or the child would be something I would play by ear but its sounds like in this case I would direct it at the child. It might escalate the situation but I have never found that to be true and have had many cases where it has resolved the problem.

  20. Frustrating, but then again, flying commercial is after all public transportation. If you want to avoid kids (or smelly people, or large boned who extend into your seat), you can always go private.

  21. I say politely ask the child to stop. You don’t have to be overly sweet, but you don’t have to be mean either. Kids may not even realize that they are bothering the person in front of them.
    I remember being a child and poking my toes into the seat in front of me in the car, when my uncle told me to stop I was genuinely surprised that he could feel it.
    I also remember being a parent and having someone basically yell at me for my child kicking their seat. My daughter was being quiet and otherwise well behaved, and I actually hadn’t realized she was kicking the seat in front of her. My mistake, yes, but being politely asked to have my daughter stop would’ve been enough.
    So, just saying, give the people the benefit of some politeness (they’ve probably had a bad day too, which mediates the blame a bit – but not entirely). Don’t just sit there and take it unless you think the parents are so crazy that any interaction with them or the child will cause a violent reaction.

  22. I bring LEGO keychains and the small bags with LEGO Minifigures with me in my carry-on. (I do have Minifigure business cards as well, but I rarely hand those out on a plane, except to some FAs who has provided an exceptionel service.)

    Giving a kid some LEGO stuff normally makes them quiet and surprised, so I would recommend having some of those in your bag.

    (Heck even the FAs get excited when I give them one. I normally get a bottle of wine or points in return, without even asking. (oh and yes I happen to work at LEGO too.))

  23. My 5yo son and I had the WORST time on a flight from Delhi to Los Angeles. For those who do not know it, that’s about a 15-hour flight. We were not traveling for ‘fun’ but to return home after working abroad. Keep in mind, my son is five, so whenever he moves his legs at all, they touch the seat in front of him because of his height and how seats are positioned in economy. There was very little I could do (short of duct tape) to keep my son absolutely motionless for 15 hours. Neither of us are rude or insensitive, and we tried really hard not to touch the seat in front.

    Now, sitting in front of him in a bulkhead seat was a man who had been bumped from Business Class and due to an airline error had had to spend the night in the Delhi airport. Not long into our flight he was so irate at my son that I feared he was going to attack us physically. Whenever I even put down my son’s tray table (which the passenger in front can feel), that man would turn around and glare at us. I found the FA and asked for help. She sided with the passenger in front of my child. So we rode many hours in fear. Then were subjected to a lecture as we deplaned about what terrible people we are and how his own kids would never act like that.

    Worst flight ever. And while I also don’t like a kid to kick my seat, there is a special place in hell for that man.

  24. I must have a sign on my back “Kick Me,” because invariably, I get a kicker and sometimes an adult kicker.
    I usually bite the bullet but one time, a little girl in back of me was screaming and giving her mother a very hard time. In desperation I found a piece of paper and drew Sponge Bob Square Pants, or what I recalled of what he looks like. I passed it to the little girl. You might have thought it was the Mona Lisa. The child was delighted and it was quiet for the rest of the flight. Her mother was thrilled.

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