What Smart Parents Can Do When Their Children Misbehave Inflight

I lamented earlier in the week about a short flight where a child behind me wouldn’t stop kicking my seat, he and his sibling were shrieking most of the flight, and the parents were arguably even less well-behaved.

There’s no question that the comments were polarized over how to handle this. Lots of suggestions, some more practical than others, but ultimately it was a tough spot because it’s awkward to confront other peoples’ children, the parents were already fighting with each other, and you don’t want to make combustible situations even worse (I could imagine a flight attendant confrontation that led to a diversion — which would have left me far worse off, farther from hom).

What I found most interesting — and ultimately most constructive — were the suggestions for parents, by parents. The parents in this situation were simply not well-equipped or prepared to handle their kids. And I’m not well-equipped to offer advice to parents, not having children myself.

So I really valued Wendy Perrin’s piece for Conde’ Nast, keying off of my post, on things that parents can do in such situations. She made several suggestions, and even went to her kids for their thoughts (!). So read the whole thing.

Some of my favorites:

If your child is kicking the seat, remove his shoes…

When reserving seats on a flight, book one parent into the seat in front of the child who’s the kicker…

Place your child’s beloved stuffed animal, Pillow Pet, or similar plush comfort toy—every child travels with one—in the seat pocket in front of him. He won’t want to kick his favorite animal friend. If he does anyway, tell him that if he kicks it again, you’ll take it away.

…Physically restrain the child’s legs.

This isn’t easy, clearly, but as Wendy suggests there are things that a parent can at least try to do. And I think my greatest frustration — beyond even the kicking and the shrieking — was that there were no efforts being made to try to make it better. I had literally no hope.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. First try, “Kicking that seat makes the person siting in it mad. Please stop making them mad.” If that doesn’t work, then try, “If you kick the seat one more time, I will spank you,” with a very stern face and firm tone. Many view that as old fashioned, but it works every single time. I completely disagree with the suggestions of removing the shoes and restraining. The first doesn’t address the problem and the second will just lead to more of a fit and screaming.

  2. The most polarized comments of intolerance toward children on planes almost always come from people who don’t have children of their own. They just don’t understand what it takes to be a parent.

  3. I think threatening your child with physical violence is ridiculous and I am surprised to hear it suggested. It is far beyond old fashioned.

    We now sit with our older son in the seat in front of our two year old so kicking is less of an issue. When that wasn’t possible, we used all of the mentioned methods and more. My usual approach would be to make the best of it. I would tell the person in front of us that I would make every effort to keep my child from bothering them during the flight. I usually would offer to purchase their food/drink during the flight to thank them for their patience and understanding.

  4. I agree with your frustration. I have a two year old and sometimes there is no winning that battle. However, if they were annoying someone else like that I would try to do something. My problem is it seems so many parents have just tuned their own kids out so that when they are doing those things they don’t mind or even notice. Well the rest of us do. I have seen many situations where people get frustrated with other people’s kids. However, I have never seen it become an issue when the parent was trying to fix it.

  5. @Tyrell,
    “If that doesn’t work, then try, “If you kick the seat one more time, I will spank you,” with a very stern face and firm tone.”

    Unless you want to end up in jail, I do not recommend this in many foreign countries. YMMV

  6. No way. It’s all about the distraction. I have three very busy little boys. When I get stern with them, the little stinkers just keep being naughty to test my patience. I almost guarantee the kid on the flight wasn’t kicking the chair because he was having the time of his life with his parents.

    You don’t need to spank/punish them! Play with them! Just be like, “oh my gosh, look out the window. Can you see that huge cloud! It’s crazy! How many clouds can you count?” How about, “so tell me what you are most excited I see in wherever the heck we ‘re going? Do you think they speak English there?” Or something to distract them. It doesn’t even have to be intelligent conversation! Easiest problem to solve ever: pay attention and play with your kid!

  7. As a parent, I have to say that in my experience, violence, ie, spanking, is never the solution. I never spanked my son, and when I was little, spanking did nothing.

    However, a strategy that was always effective with my son and with others who do it is simply to use the fact that you are many times the child’s size. A 2 year old will get amazingly calm when he is enveloped by the arms of a parent and HELD close with a bit of firmness. It is a loving thing to do, it is warm, it embraces the child, and after a few moments of fighting and fussing, children calm down incredibly quickly. They actually seem to enjoy the closeness. Then out comes their favorite book or toy, and mom/dad gives the child what they really wanted: ATTENTION and LOVE. 🙂

  8. @Tom: sorry but I am also a parent of 2 young boys and I don’t agree with your comment. Yes, I do love my kids, I give them love and attention but it is not about that when it comes to behavior. It is about the education you give at home and that will reflect how they act and behave outside. My kids would never kick the seat in the front and even if they did once like they did not know it was wrong a look from me or my wife or us telling them that was a bad behavior would be enough for them to not do that again. I’ve see many kids behaving terribly in planes, hotels, malls, etc.. and it is clear that they are the ones in charge and not their parents. I can guarantee you these kids behave the same way at home and their parents have no control. I can guarantee you they kick their parents back seat when in the car and parents do nothing.

  9. Santastico hit the nail on the head. Of course most parents are biased and can’t see or won’t admit that the child is the one in charge of the parent/child relationship in these scenarios (with the exception of those children that act out due to medical/psychological issues).

  10. Spanking equated to “violence”?! What has this world come to? Only a scumbag would violently beat a kid. Parents who spank rarely need to spank (I can’t recall the last time I did) – once they know you will, the mere threat is enough of a deterrent. It’s more embarrassing than anything for the kids, and the whole point is to convey they are doing wrong when they aren’t able or willing to listen to reason. I have extremely well behaved kids as a result who would never think of continuing to kick a seat if I told them they were annoying the person in front of them and gave them a stern “not again”. The kids who kick the seat and scream are the ones with the parents who are fond of “distractions” and other feel-good non-consequential techniques that will result in undisciplined kids.

  11. Spanking isn’t violence…wow…mamby pamby. I love that the majority of those who say they won’t spank also say they were. somehow that experience must have made an impression that they don’t want repeated, but perhaps should be.

  12. I remain absolutely amazed at the number of comments like @ George. Asa parent of three kids under 6, including twins (they’re four), that attitude is beyond offensive. It’s almost like parents feel they are entitled to let their kids go crazy, and when it happens “they’re just kids, being a parent is a hard job, and there is nothing you can do, oh and they probably had to get up at 3 am, so there’s nothing they can do.”

    Personally, I am horrified when my kid mis-behave, and I try to rectify it immediately. At the end of the day, though, what we’re talking about here is terrible parenting. I see this all the time, kids traveling without anything to do, without any toys to play with, without anything to entertain and divert. And then the parents check out to adult land, leaving the kids to go nuts. This is parenting 101, people, and it’s the parents fault if their kids end up out of control.

    I know this puts me firmly in the minority, but last I checked children are not in charge. So many parents operate the other way around (and yes, strangers telling kids to behave resonates because (a) the kids know they are misbehaving and (b) it scares them – good!). It’s no wonder this is a “polarizing issue” – most parents are oblivious to how badly behaved their kids are and immediately get defensive when called on it. I’m just amazed the people on this forum who are parents are so tolerant of bad parenting – just amazing.

  13. Every child is different (I have 3) and different methods will work for different child so try them all… spank/no spank, shoes on/off, seating, distractions, foods, sleep (keep them up and lots of play before travel), drawing, toys from the airline (some have good toys/puzzles), “stranger threat” (once I had a stewardess reprimanded my kid and he listened – she was really nice, and once I asked a pilot who happened to be walking by, to tell my eldest that he will make him sit in the cockpit with them if he doesn’t listen – that was quite funny as every time the pilot walked past, my eldest was sitting silently observing the pilot strolling by), etc…

  14. I have 4 kids and have traveled with 4 kids. I am amazed at the number of people on this planet who do not know how to BE THE PARENT. Tell them to stop kicking the seat. If they do not stop kicking the seat, punish them. It really is that easy. If you teach obedience at home and expect it, you should not have trouble on the plane. My kids are not all complacent little wimps, they are very active, normal boys who hate to sit still as much as the next kid. Parents today are so ridiculously afraid of making their kid upset that they will do anything to placate them. Your kids are NOT the center of the universe. Teach them to respect other people.

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