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White Knuckle Parenting: (Fear of) Flying with Kids

Does the thought of air travel with children strike fear into your heart? Yeah, me too. Here are some tips to get you through.

There are certain things that I, as a parent, avoid doing with my children at all costs. Going to one of those paint-your-own pottery studios where one misstep could result in many sharp, broken pieces of things I have to pay for is one of those things. Going to the symphony with them is another.

As full of potential for disaster as those things are, however, the one thing that gives me terror sweats more than any other is the thought of flying on an airplane with my three sons.

I think my fly-with-kids phobia may have started when my oldest son was four months old and on the return leg of his first airplane trip, he cried loudly for 90 minutes. I only cried for about 30 of them.

Since then, I have panicked before every single flight I have taken with children. Most have gone tolerably well.  I consider the flight trauma to be karma for every time (pre-children) that I rolled my eyes when someone got on an airplane with a baby.

Flying with toddlers may be even harder than flying with babies because (1) they can yell louder, (2) they like to walk around and deeply resent being strapped into a car seat on an airplane, and (3) you need more than silly faces to keep them occupied.

It gets better once they get a little older, into what I like to call the "DSi" years, so named for the portable gaming systems that have gotten me through more flights with my kids than I care to count. I'm currently in those years. I'm still waiting for the "Mom, I Don't Want Anyone to Know I'm With You" years when I don't even have to sit near my children, but I think that might be a long time away.

I flew with my kids last week and it went better than it ever has before. Evidently I can learn from my mistakes. This flight was a particularly long one, from East to West Coast, and took off early in the morning, prime barfing time for my one airsick little traveler. I knew I was going to have to pull out all my tricks. They are as follows.

Planning: Preparing for a good flight starts way before you set foot in an airport. Do you have a kid who throws up whenever a plane takes off or lands? Do you have a kid who is, in the parlance of the times, "an eloper" and who is likely to run off and get lost in a strange airport? Then you should schedule a direct flight. Actually everyone should schedule a direct flight. But if that is not possible and you have to make a stop, you should tell yourself that you are breaking up the day and giving your kids time to recover during the layover. You will be lying to yourself, but it might make you feel better.

Security: Going through security can be stressful for any traveler. Add kids and it's a whole other nightmare. I still remember the night my 1 1/2-year-old was forced to walk through the metal detector by himself in his little footie pajamas. His bewildered little face is etched in my memory. My kids are savvier now, and I've learned to make sure the chance of being slowed down while going through security is less likely, allowing me to focus on making sure none of my kids accidentally threatens a TSA officer.

Two adults help this process a lot, but are not totally necessary. What is necessary is a firm attitude and children who are ready to follow orders. I may have taken this too far, which I realized on this trip when I heard myself say, "Keep moving, sir," to my 10-year-old.

Airsickness: One of my kids throws up on airplanes. Actually, a couple of them do, but one of them is like clockwork about it. I still have nightmares about that time he threw up Doritos on the foot of the passenger sitting behind him. Since then, he has gotten impressively smooth at using the airsickness bags. This time, I was smart enough to give my two barfers children's Dramamine. Even though one of my kids puked during landing, I am going to consider it a success as he didn't also vomit during takeoff and only used two bags instead of his usual four or five.

During the flight: I cannot stress this enough: bring electronic games. I don't care if you don't let your kids watch TV and think that smartphones are the devil; bring electronic babysitters for your kids. My own attention span is super short on flights; my kids' are gnat-like. Also bring snacks. My 9-year-old spent a half hour on this last flight methodically eating goldfish crackers one at a time.

Your inflight entertainment: I usually spend flights distributing snacks and listening to my youngest kid narrate the minutiae of his inflight experience. This time, with everyone pretty happy and occupied, I attempted to watch a movie. I was a little concerned that my kids were going to demand my full attention before it ended, but I actually was able to watch the whole thing. Which is awesome, because I would have been sad if I had to rent The Five Year Engagement to find out what happened at the end. (Spoiler alert: a wedding.)

Upon arrival: Your kids will be antsy. You will have to find your luggage and rent a car. This may involve trams, moving walkways, and long terminals. You gotta clamp down on the restlessness immediately. Get a luggage cart and make one of them push it. Assign a roller suitcase to another. Make the third hold the rental car agreement. I don't know what you do if you have a fourth. Good luck and godspeed to you in that case.

In general: Those tips given, I think the most important thing I can suggest is this: Do not panic. You will be fine. Your plane will land. It is highly unlikely that anything your kids do will require the plane to be diverted. (Although if that happens, I totally want to hear the story.) You will almost certainly get off the plane with the the same number of kids that you boarded with. Once you leave the baggage claim area, you will never see your fellow passengers from the plane again.

I got some great advice once. I was sitting on an airplane holding a baby and I must have looked terribly panicked, because a passenger stopped as she passed by in the aisle to say, "Most people on this plane have small children now or remember having small children. They all understand." 

It gave me an entirely new perspective. I mean, no one likes a screaming kid, but as long as the parent seems to be making an effort to calm them down, most people are pretty forgiving. Even when your kid barfs on them. Trust me on that one.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

D August 16, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Thanks, love it. You made me laugh and cry. I hate flying by myself and even more with my kids. I am not sure what there is to like about flying except it is faster than a car. I always have a plan, food, electronics, change of clothes, and I will never see these people again.
Christine September 09, 2012 at 03:42 AM
Thanks for the article. At what age did you stop using a car seat on the plan for your children? I am planning for a long overseas flight where I expect my 3 year old will sleep for part of the time. I am undecided on whether to bring her booster seat.

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