Screaming toddlers on a plane!

Southwest flight attendants removed a shouting 2-year-old and his mom from a recent flight. Who behaved worse?

Published November 2, 2009 7:03PM (EST)

Last week, Pamela Root and her 2-year-old son were booted off a Southwest Airlines flight because the boy wouldn't stop shouting, "Go, plane, go!" and "I want Daddy!" 

I'm really tempted to say nothing more on the subject, since that sentence alone is plenty to spark a spirited argument about whether overly permissive parenting or a lack of respect for harried moms (and lack of sympathy for cranky kids) is the greater scourge facing society today -- and if I stay out of it, at least none of the ranting will be directed at me. Alas, I get paid to express opinions, so here we go.

My opinion: As a society, we do not have enough respect for harried moms (and dads, but it's usually moms) or sympathy for cranky kids, generally speaking. I believe this is an important feminist issue. I believe any adult who travels by air and claims she's never wanted to scream "Go, plane, go!" at the top of her lungs while sitting on a tarmac is probably lying. I also believe, however, that unless he has special needs that make public screaming both more likely and far more difficult to end, a toddler hollering in a closed space for a prolonged period about something other than physical pain is very unlikely to evoke much sympathy. And the adult in charge has a responsibility to try to calm him and reinforce that this is inappropriate public behavior.

Before parents start huffing that I obviously don't have kids or know what it's like -- and you're right, I don't -- let me clarify a few things about those last two sentences. First, the key word is "try." Some toddlers simply will not shut up for love or gummi bears. I get this. I've worked in daycare. I've been a nanny. I have nieces and nephews, one of whom does have special needs that made him extremely tantrum-prone when he was young. And of course his parents still had the same responsibility (not to mention natural desire) to try to calm him -- which they took very seriously, though it was often a losing battle. So I try to give all parents the benefit of the doubt, not knowing their situation, when the screaming starts. And even when it doesn't stop for a while. If I can see that the adult is trying to get the outburst in hand, and the kid is simply having none of it, I chide myself for my own knee-jerk uncharitable thoughts and try to focus instead on how frustrated that parent must be, what a crappy position she finds herself in. I believe this is The Decent Thing to Do. But at the same time, there really are parents out there who do nothing, or almost nothing, when their kids start making life miserable for everyone else on a plane or in a restaurant or in a store -- and I reserve the right to smugly judge them, dammit.

That point -- that such slacker parents exist, though they are clearly not all or even most parents -- really can't be emphasized enough in these debates. Because it seems to me, everyone who's ever been the parent of a young child has a story about the kid acting out in a way that led to a dirty look or a nasty comment from a stranger, which then leads them to think, "That could have been me -- so screw you, impatient, selfish childless person who objects to screaming children! You have no idea how hard it is!" I can appreciate that. If someone was rude to you when you were trying your best to calm your child, that person is what's known as an asshole. It wasn't fair. They shouldn't have done that. But the existence of child-hating assholes does not rule out the existence of asshole parents, and the latter are the topic at hand just now. It's like we lady bloggers are always telling men who whine, "But we're not all like that!" -- as if that news flash should end any conversation about sexist male behavior. We know you're not all like that, and if the shoe doesn't fit, you don't have to wear it. Still, some of your ilk are indeed like that, and that's whom we're discussing.

A few years ago, a cafe in a Chicago neighborhood near my own made national news when the owner, Dan McCauley, put a sign on the door that read, "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven." Neighborhood parents went bazoo and organized a boycott, but four years later, both the cafe and the sign are still there; there wasn't sufficient outrage to change the policy. I can only assume that's because the controversy was not really about child-hating meanies versus beleaguered parents trying their very best, but about a reasonable small business owner versus a bunch of selfish jerks. Before the sign went up, as the New York Times reported:

Children were climbing the cafe's poles. A couple were blithely reading the newspaper while their daughter lay on the floor blocking the line for coffee. When the family whose children were running across the room to throw themselves against the display cases left after his admonishment, Mr. McCauley recalled, the restaurant erupted in applause.

If you're not the kind of parent who would let your child throw herself against a display case for kicks, I have no beef with you. Most people probably don't. Those who would be nasty to a parent who's engaged in the process of teaching a child that acting like a child is, unfortunately, not always completely appropriate deserve just as much scorn as parents who ignore their precious little pole-climbers. But can we at least agree that those parents deserve it, too? Can we agree that parents who read the newspaper while their kids blatantly interfere with a business's operations and drive strangers nuts might actually have earned the negative judgment of other patrons? Because I am really sick of hearing that I'm the selfish one when there are real, live parents who say stuff like, "You go to a coffee shop or a bakery for a rest, to relax, and that you would have to worry the whole time about your child doing something that children do -- really what they're saying is they don't welcome children, they want the child to behave like an adult," as ejected A Taste of Heaven patron Kim Cavitt did to the Times. There is a big difference between not welcoming children and trying to maintain a public space where one person's child won't prevent everyone else in the room from relaxing -- i.e., expecting the parent to behave like an adult.

As far as Pamela Root goes, I have no idea what she did to try to soothe her son while he was yelling, or whether she deserves opprobrium by my standards or anyone else's. According to reports, she planned to feed her son when the plane took off -- in hopes of avoiding ear pressure-related screaming -- after which she expected he would fall asleep, as he had on previous trips. Apparently, the flight attendants did not warn Root that she was at risk of being removed from the plane if she couldn't calm the boy, which might have made a difference in her response. (Before they returned home the next day, she "warned him what would happen if he acted up, that we'd get kicked off the plane," which seems to have helped.) Root and her son had flown before and eventually made it home without incident, so it obviously wasn't a chronic problem. But I still can't blame the flight attendant who said, "We've heard that before," when Root tried offering assurances that he'd be fine after takeoff. And I know I've sat on tarmacs with dozens of squawking children who were not removed from the aircrafts, which leads me to believe there was probably something different about this one. (Would it be news if Southwest or any other airline were in the habit of kicking out 2-year-olds just for acting like 2-year-olds?) And I know that parents often become desensitized to the noises their young children make, and learn to tolerate a lot more racket than the rest of us can bear, which can become problematic in a space like a plane.

So, without having been there, I can't really judge whether Root messed up, the flight attendants messed up, or both sides bear equal responsibility for turning a fairly common problem into a newsworthy incident. I can, however, say that I don't look forward to the inevitable screeds on how parents today suck or on how childless people suck for not being more understanding when 2-year-olds scream their heads off incessantly. The truth is, there are real child-haters (and parent-haters) out there, and there are real parents whose flagrant disregard for the comfort of anyone but their obnoxious offspring makes everyone around them miserable. But most of us fall into neither category. Most of us are just doing our best to get along.

So, fellow childless people, please try to remember that the kid crying behind you on a plane might be terrified or in pain, and his parents are probably trying really hard to soothe him. And parents, please try to remember that those of us who complain about crappy parenting we've witnessed are probably not talking about people like you -- unless you actually are one of the ones who would completely ignore your kid throwing herself into a display case or kicking a fellow passenger's seat for two hours. If you are one of those, then yes, my fruitless womb and I are judging you. And we'll stop being annoyed that your child acts like a child just as soon as you start acting like a grown-up. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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