What flying with children teaches you about empathy

A study in patience.
A study in patience.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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One of the hallmarks of modern parenting is that everyone—no matter how little they know of you, your children, or child development—has an opinion about how it should be done, and what you’re doing wrong.

J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab and founder of the site Serious Eats (and a parent himself), recently tweeted his advice, which set off a mini firestorm among the parents of Twitter.

Oh. Quick tip for parents who fly with kids: if the people in your aisle order food or drink on the flight, pay for it (if you can afford to) and DEFINITELY acknowledge them before the flight (it’ll make the flight easier) and after the flight (it’ll make their day nicer).

— J. Kenji “Individual Fun” López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) December 15, 2018

Some felt he was unfairly shaming parents, suggesting that not only do you have to make sure your child is perfectly behaved whenever in public, but that you also have to in some way apologize for their mere presence.

Other Twitter users made no bones about shaming parents for their terrible modern parenting.

López-Alt’s advice to acknowledge and be considerate of the people in your immediate area is spot on. The big problem with his suggestion of buying snacks or drinks for the people around you (which, let’s face it, is a humblebrag about his own decency disguised as a parenting pro-tip), is that it suggests that civility is never fully realized without some sort of cash outlay—as some pointed out.

What really bums me out about this suggestion though, is the power dynamic it reinforces. Parents, by and large, are just trying to do our best in a system that is harder for us to navigate than it would be if we didn’t have children with us. Society is made up of a range of people in different stages of life, with different needs, challenges, and obstacles to navigate. López-Alt doubled down on his initial tweet by arguing with his detractors, at one point insisting that it’s ludicrous to suggest kids don’t “inconvenience” other passengers.

I can tell you from experience, sitting with 20 wriggling, occasionally wailing pounds of baby on your lap for three hours is not super fun. An acute awareness of how my baby and toddler might be inconveniencing or annoying other passengers, despite my best efforts, is a significant part of that discomfort. But on a recent flight with them from Nashville to Boston, I had a reality check about my own predicament: I noticed an older man with whose entire body trembled as he struggled up the aisle to the bathroom several times.

Flying with children is an opportunity to recognize how difficult the world is when you don’t conform to the status quo it was designed for: able-bodied, wealthy, English-speaking people. Wrangling children through the baggage claim is a hassle, yes, but it would also be difficult to navigate an American airport if I didn’t speak and read English. And my ability to soothe frayed tempers with a sandwich and a cookie from the overpriced airport café after our flight was delayed made me realize just how easy my family has it.

Of course, López-Alt is right that parents are not exempt from the requirement of politeness and basic decency. But they’re probably not the ones most in need of reminders on this score.

“It’s crazy how self absorbed people are now,” wrote Heather Poole, a former flight attendant and the author of the memoir Cruising Attitude, told me in an email. “I’ve seen people walk down the aisle and bonk people in the head with backpacks and not even notice because they’re on their phones…. It’s a me, me, me world and you can really see it on a plane.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with buying a drink or a snack for a nearby passenger, whether traveling with children or not. But focusing on the passengers who have the easiest time navigating the overpriced hustle of air travel, and making them marginally more comfortable, is the wrong place for our collective energy.

Waiting patiently for folks who are slower or use a wheelchair, lending an arm up the jetway to someone who might be struggling, or helping a passenger stash a heavy bag in the overhead compartment, these are real civilities. Empathy is free. Modeling it early and often for your children is perhaps the ultimate parenting pro-tip.