So, I’m on an airplane the other day, flying with my two small sons, and the seating arrangement was unfavorable to say the least. My wife ended up in the back of the plane, the kids were together closer to the front, and I ended up directly in front of them, which, if you’ve ever been on a plane, means I couldn’t see them. At all. Unless peering through the half inch declivity between my seat and the one next to me, or craning my body out into the aisle like Inspector Gadget. At first I was unworried. Figured I’d ask the person across the aisle from the boys to trade with me so I could be next to them. No problem. So I asked as politely as humanly possible. It was just short of groveling. She refused.
In her defense, she was older and said it was because of arthritis, which I know sounds tricky and rude to dispute as an excuse, but lest you think I’m heartless, or have it in for the elderly, my seat, I’m convinced, had the exact quantity of leg room as her own. It just happened to be beside someone else, whereas hers, and her entire aisle’s, were singletons. A few minutes later, the lady, perhaps feeling guilty watching me trying to parent from such an awkward and untenable position, offered vaguely to “keep and eye on them.”
So we sat there awhile, waiting to take off. Occasionally I would lean my body around, check on the boys (they’re only 5 and 3 by the way), correct their behavior, ask how they were, get them something to do out of the backpack, or something to eat or whatever. Triage. Flying with kids is all about filling minutes.
I then, feeling a bit desperate, asked the gentleman sitting beside me if he’d trade with me so I could see my kids better. I’d still be in front of them, but at least I’d be able to see them. He too refused, rather curtly I might add, saying simply, “no, I prefer this” and making no eye contact with me. If he hadn’t been reading Steinbeck, for whom I have a blue whale sized soft spot, I might have offered a snide rejoinder. Mostly I was too surprised and pissed to say anything.
I should add here that, even though I didn’t know it at the time, he turned out to be the woman’s husband.
We got out to the runway area and then sat there. And sat there. The pilot said we were grounded for a little while because of weather on the departure route. I started to get worried. The kids were getting more rambunctious, not doing anything bad–in fact they were being amazing–but there’s something deeply unnerving about not being able to see your kids, even if they’re right behind you. And it’s hard for kids to be in a confined space like that. I had no idea how long we were going to sit there and, if it proved to be a long time, the situation was poised to go south. I could hear Leo, my 3 year old, making lip spitting type sounds (motor boat?) at Felix, and turned to see, at which point I noticed the woman frowning in consternation and wagging a finger at the boys and verbally chiding them, or at least mouthing “don’t do that,” or “oh no no” or some such. Either way, she was kind of letting them have it, unafraid to show her disapproval.
Before I could stop myself, I looked at her and said, firmly, though not rudely, “Mam, please don’t do that.”
She looked stunned.
“Umm,” she stammered, “well…I figured you wouldn’t want them spitting on each other.”
Needed Non Sequitor: They were NOT spitting on each other. They were making spitting, lip rippling type sounds. There’s a difference.
“I don’t,” I said, “but I can handle it, thank you.”
She said nothing further. I turned away and did not address her again, making sure to avoid looking at her every time I turned around to check the boys.
Now, the story ends well for me because we took off shortly after and my children behaved so well during the flight that after we landed, it took me an hour to pry the halos off their heads. But the incident lingers. I can’t decide if what I did was justified or not. Who was in the wrong here, if anyone? Should I have responded differently? Was the lady in the right? Was she, God forbid, just trying to be helpful?
I should add here that, in the abstract, I’m mostly in favor of a community based approach to parenting. Meaning, I think that we should all strive to help ourselves and the people around us behave well, including our kids and other people’s kids. This, of course, comes with a long list of caveats and exceptions. Disciplining someone else’s kids, especially a stranger’s kids, is a very tricky matter and one must exercise a great deal of prudence in doing so or one risks looking like an ass or doing it very wrong and really pissing someone off; however, I don’t have a “don’t tell my kids what to do!” type rule in life. If my progeny are behaving like assholes, someone should tell them, hopefully in a constructive way.
So what gives?
I think in this situation, it was the combination of things. First, my kids were not out of control. Nor were they actually spitting on each other. I think it was the woman and her husband denying me the ability, through an unwillingness to be mildly inconvenienced to help another human being, so I could actively parent, and then assuming it was okay to just step in in my stead, that really set me off. That I think would have set many people off. Still, I was, and continue to be surprised about how I reacted, even knowing I stayed calm and didn’t raise my voice. Conflict with another human being, however minor, is just unsettling I guess.
It’s been a few days since it happened and I’ve decided that if placed in the same predicament, I’d probably do it again. Maybe not. Maybe I’d just ignore her.
But for some reason, I’ve been second guessing myself and soul searching.
What would you have done?