Flying the child-unfriendly skies

Woman kicked off flight after refusing to medicate her child into silence.

By Carol Lloyd

Published July 13, 2007 12:30AM (EDT)

The story of a mother who was kicked off a Continental flight because she refused to medicate her 19-month-old at the flight attendant's request has stirred up a poop storm of opinions and accusations in cyberspace. Last month, Kate Penland was flying from Atlanta to Oklahoma with a stop in Houston. As the plane was taxiing toward takeoff, for its final leg, her son Garren began saying "Bye-bye, plane" repeatedly. Penland told WSB-TV in Atlanta that a flight attendant said: "It's not funny anymore. You need to shut your baby up." After Penland questioned whether she was joking, the flight attendant reportedly answered: "You know, it's called baby Benadryl." Penland told the flight attendant that she wasn't about to medicate her child so that the flight attendant could have a pleasant flight, and the flight attendant announced that they were turning around and kicking the woman off the plane. In the updated story the flight attendant allegedly told the captain that she had been threatened by Penland, something Penland denies.

Bring on the child haters, the airline critics, the lazy parenting theorists! If you think this story sounds like an urban legend designed to foment sippy-cup culture wars, I don't blame you. I too would have found it difficult to swallow had I not experienced a similar treatment on an airline just last month. The details are tedious -- they involve me tapping the flight attendant on the shoulder trying to pass along some trash, him informing me he didn't appreciate "being touched," and me asking why he was being so rude. He then snarled at me: "Your children are totally out of control! If you'd just discipline them, you'd be much better off."

Granted, my kids often give an unfortunate impression given that they both look two years older than they are, but definitely act their age. In public situations, I've been known to whisper, hiss, threaten, cover a screaming mouth, and take away beloved privileges until I'm literally dripping with sweat. But this wasn't one of those occassions. When the flight attendant -- a young man who I assumed had no children -- told me off, both children were sitting absolutely silent, enraptured by a Hello Kitty DVD. Perhaps something had happened while I was in the bathroom and they were with my husband, I'll never know. After the event, I had 20 more hours of traveling to soul-search. Perhaps my children are monsters and I would never really be able to see it. Maybe in the wake of 9/11, flying and the jobs of flight attendants had become too stressful and high anxiety for them to be able to deal with squirmy passengers with squeaky voices or anything out of the ordinary. (Do a search for "kicked off airplane" and you get all sorts of stories about American flights dumping passengers for virtually nothing: a coughing fit, a political T-shirt, for a father asking if a pilot is sober.)

Once we switched flights to Lufthansa and a number of smiling, toy-bearing German flight attendants charmed the socks off my kids, I couldn't help thinking that it wasn't air travel but an American cultural divide about the place of children in society. The recent story about a woman who was kicked off a Delta flight for not covering her toddler's head with a blanket while breast-feeding offers more evidence of some weird attitudes toward children. The experience of Kate Penland vindicates this hunch. Obviously suggesting that a child be medicated goes far beyond any rational response to a chatty 19-month-old no matter how repetitive he was being. (Baby Benadryl can be a beautiful thing, but it's a parent's prerogative to use it, not a flight attendant's place to demand it.) But according to many of the readers of this story who are sick and tired of "obnoxious booger eating" animals disturbing their peace, she did the right thing. Now let's be clear; most of the posters sympathize with Penland, whether they have kids or not. But for a certain child-free percentage of the population, ordinary kid behavior is so reprehensible as to warrant turning around flights and creating child-free restaurants.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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