What should we do about children on planes?

Babies on a plane.
Babies on a plane. Photo: Shutterstock

There are few things that stir more panic in a parent than the thought of their child having a meltdown in an enclosed space. Replace "enclosed space" with "metal tube travelling forty thousand feet in the air" and you have a recipe for unrelenting anxiety.

This is exactly what happened last year to a woman taking an eight hour flight with her child while travelling from Germany to New Jersey. The 3 year-old’s distress began before the plane had even left the tarmac, and it appears it lasted for the duration of the flight. We know this because a completely repulsive passenger by the name of Shane Townley filmed the whole thing as it was happening and then uploaded it to the internet in an attempt to shame a woman and her child.

Describing the child in video captions as “demonic”, Townley also sneered that “mom lets the kid do whatever he wants throughout the flight”. At one point, he mocks her for saying, “Calm down honey” - as if a more appropriate response would be for her to escalate the situation even further with yelling or physical restraint.

Certainly, it seems that numerous respondents to his short film agreed. On the Daily Mail’s article about the incident, the comments section is filled with people declaring the child should have received a “good old fashioned clip around the ear”; that he should have been “belted to the chair”; that he needs to “sit down or you’ll get such a leathering you won’t know what hit you”; that he needed to have someone stick their leg “casually” into the aisle for him to trip over or to get a “hard kick to his ankles”; that he should be put on a no fly list until “it’s old enough to take responsibility for its behaviour”; that he needed to be fitted with an electric dog “anti bark collar”; that he should have been “gagged, tied up and thrown in the over hold locker”; and on and on in this vein. Because apparently it’s fine to talk about beating and abusing children when their behaviour irritates us.

Of course, a large part of the public’s venom is also reserved for the child’s mother who is described variously as “useless”, “a bad parent” and “not ready for a child”.

It’s unclear if both parents were on the flight, but responsibility for children’s behaviour is always foisted onto women. There’s little regard for the fact that, aside from the child himself, the person unquestionably the most stressed out on that flight was the woman.

She is the parent dealing not only with the fact that her child was deeply upset but that she would be the one blamed and held responsible for it. (The child’s mother indicated later that her son was neurodiverse, which makes the gleeful threats to beat him or just exclude him altogether all the more horrifying.)

Here’s a wacky thought! What about if instead of secretly filming a toddler like a creep, Townley actually offered to help? What if literally anyone asked if there was anything they could do to try and make things a little less stressful for the family, in deference to the fact that we live in a society and being neighbourly is a good part of what that means?

But if asking for some basic compassion and assistance when it comes to the difficult task of taking care of children is too much, then here’s another far out idea: how about everyone - especially cis dudes and non-parents - shut up about how women are taking care of their children in public? Because until society completes the challenging and necessary task of defeminising the labour of child rearing (and removing with it the constant and offensive criticisms levelled at women who take it on), then all these people who either don’t have to do it or will never be expected to do it can just keep their pointless, unhelpful and ultimately sexist opinions to themselves.

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I’ve taken countless flights with my son in his short life, often without my partner. In that whole time, I’ve seen a lot of women flying solo with their kids but have only ever seen men doing it twice. I’m not saying it never happens. I’m saying it rarely happens. And in my experience, when women leave their families for short periods of time, they still take on the responsibility of planning care for kids in their absence and sometimes even freezing meals for the week.

Men, step up.

I get it. Sneering at mothers is a national sport in Australia. I used to play it myself before I became one. And then I realised that children aren’t robots and you can’t control them at will. Small children especially undergo enormous, rapid development in their early years and this can produce a range of extreme emotions. The compassionate response to these emotions isn’t to scream at them or threaten them with violence, nor is it to ostracise the people caring for them.

The next time you feel tempted to judge a child and their mother for somehow failing to make your day as stress-free as possible, think instead about what you can do to make their day less stressful. And if you can’t do that - if you absolutely must be a complete git about it - don’t pull your phone out to film them. They might be the ones you’re capturing on film, but all you’re  revealing is that you’re a massive creep with entitlement issues.

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