How to survive flying long haul with a kid on

Last week I had a heated discussion with a friend of mine.  Well as heated as it can get with an uber-polite Canadian.  It was one of those discussions about giving out treats to the people sitting around you when you fly with your kid.  My friend thought it was a great idea and it would immediately make her feel more tolerant towards any screaming that might ensue, seeing as she now had a nice little goodie bag with earplugs and a note apologising in advance.  At first I thought, Yeah, that’s a nice thing to do.  Very considerate of the family to understand that their kid may well annoy others on the flight that day.

But then I stopped and thought about it.

I’m going to be flying alone with my almost three year old in a few weeks.  And I don’t mean “long haul” in the Europe to US scale, I mean Amsterdam to Adelaide.  You know, a full day in a plane surrounded by 500 miserable people who are wishing they could teleport themselves across the globe.  Basically it’s not going to be a fun journey.  And it’s going to be tough with my seriously active daughter who can’t sit still through a 60 minute kid movie at the cinema let alone 24 hours in a flying sardine can.  I won’t have time to be thinking about whether or not I’ve pissed off the woman in seat 48C or the couple in the row in front of me.  I’ve purposely chosen seats as close to the bulkhead as possible as that’s where the babies will be and no childless person in their right mind should be sitting there anyway – legroom be damned.  I’m also spending the six weeks leading up to the trip prepping my kid on how she will need to behave.  As in, no kicking the seat in front if she can help it, sitting still and looking out the window, and trying to teach her some patience.  Luckily she’s already a very polite and friendly kid, so the pressure’s at least off there.  I’m also hoarding toddler activity books and toys, and planning on loading the tablet and my laptop with all manner of kids shows to try and keep her quiet and still for as long as humanly possible.

However, I’m a realist.  I know she will be excited and will want to stand up, run around (she doesn’t walk) and climb the stairs to first class (meanwhile I’ve booked our seats near the back of the plane, hoping she never finds those stairs).  I know there’s the possibility that the air pressure will hurt her ears.  I know she will get tired and whiny and I doubt there’s a toddler alive who doesn’t cry at least once during a normal day, let alone a day where the stimulation is over the top and there is no way to burn off the energy properly.  If only they had a soft play area at the back of the plane, my journey would be awesome!

Even though I know all of these things could happen, I’m not going to apologise to my flying neighbours in before they do.  I’m not going to let my kid think that she’s a burden that needs excusing just because she’s a toddler and has to fly across the world to spend some much needed time with family she hasn’t seen in more than two years.  I am going to have a conversation with the people around me and ask them to tell me if she’s giving them the shits to avoid any passive aggressive behaviour, because let’s face it.  That just makes me feel aggressive, and then there’s no way we’ll salvage the relationship and 24 hours is a long time to sit next to a person you would like to choke.

Flying is a very divisive topic, I know.  The rage that it causes people even before take off is incredible.  Any travel website will have endless articles about kids and fat shaming.  And look.  I used to be a hater.  I hated kids on planes.  I hated the screaming that felt relentless, but in reality was probably only 5 minutes.  I was that person who would huff and puff and mutter “Shut that damned kid up,” through gritted teeth.

But even before I had a kid of my own I grew to realise that there are a few little things I could be doing myself to make that family’s journey a little bit easier.  I could put my headphones on and shut it out.  Even better, I could turn around and offer a friendly face.  Ultimately that’s all the support a parent on a flight needs – a friendly face.  Someone who can empathise and might even offer a distraction.

My friend and I never came to agreement on this topic, aside from having to agree to disagree.  I appreciate her point of view and I may even buy a bulk pack of earplugs for the neighbours.  But I won’t be giving them out in advance.

Here are five things you can do to make a parent’s life easier on a long haul flight:

  1. Put your headphones on and turn up the music.  Better yet, spend a few bucks and buy a better quality pair for the flight.  You’ll be amazed that you’ll be able to hear the in-flight entertainment much better.
  2. Smile.  Even if it hurts.  If a parent (especially a sole parent) is struggling with a distressed child, the last thing that they need is someone to be giving them the evil eye.  That moment of connection might bring them back from the brink of despair.
  3. Offer a hand.  This one can backfire, so use with caution.  By offering a hand to help the parent, even if it’s to get something out of the overhead bins, or to hold their cup or help make some space you can make a huge difference to the stress levels of the parent and thus the child.  Plus, it’s the nice thing to do.
  4. Ask to move.  If there is space (there never is when I fly), the hostie might be able to find you somewhere else to sit, which will give you much needed peace and the family even more needed space.
  5. Engage with the child.  Just say hi.  Chances are high that the kid will be climbing on you or kicking you within a couple of hours, so please don’t pretend the kid doesn’t exist.

And for the sake of balance; parents, here are five things you can do to make everyone else’s journey easier:

  1. Bring entertainment!  Whatever device it is that you know works with your kid for an hour, bring it.  If it’s colouring, brilliant.  If it’s a tablet filled with all four seasons of Peppa Pig, do it.
  2. Smile.  Wait, didn’t I say that already?  It works both ways.  Engage.  Get your fellow passengers on side by being a nice person.
  3. Don’t bitch at the hosties.  Remember they have to look after about 500 other people and while they do their best, they can’t accommodate your every whim.  Plus, if you’re snarky with the hosties you’ll immediately get the other passengers around you off-side.
  4. Get out and about.  It’s impossible to burn off all the energy that a kid has – especially my kid – but get up out of your seat and do laps of the plane every now and then.  It’ll give your neighbours a break, even if it’s for a few minutes, and you’ll be sure to come across at least one friendly face on your travels.
  5. Prep your kid.  Before you leave, spend time giving your child some expectations and boundaries.  Play together and pretend you’re on a flight, do whatever works for you both to help him or her understand what it will be like and how you’d like them to behave.  It’s the only way I can get my daughter to actually open her mouth for the dentist.  We practice for the week or so leading up, and by the time the appointment comes around, she’s happy for the dentist to take a look.  Practice makes perfect!

Now finally, wish me a good flight.  I’ll come back here afterwards and tell you how all my good advice went straight out the window!


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