There was a photo circulating on social media a while ago about the parents of twins who handed goody bags out to everyone on their airplane — the bags contained candy, earplugs, and an apologetic note. The first time I saw that, I thought it was clever and cute, and thoughtful of the parents. Now, I find it enraging. The difference? I had a kid.
I am a traveler; my earliest memories are of driving down to see my grandparents from Canada to the States, and reading in the dark by the headlights of the cars behind us. My mom took me to Greece when I was eight, and to Italy when I was twelve. I’ve visited all the continents but Antarctica, once spent forty hours in transit to get to the Sahara desert by the Summer Solstice, and almost fell off a cliff in a Guatemalan bus. I have street cred, and a bunch of shiny visas in my old passports.
But as soon as I had a baby, that was supposed to change. I found myself traveling in a new world, where not only was I supposed to decorously stay home with my kid, but in which I was responsible for any disruption she causes in the day of other people. This isn’t unique to travel, of course — any parent who dares to take their child to a restaurant or public event that isn’t kid-themed has run into this attitude. A parenting podcast I listened to recently asked the question, “Where are we allowed to take our kids?” and the answer was: to school, to the park, or home. Even restaurants with crayons and placemats often don’t have changing tables, and woe betide anyone whose toddler gets antsy after sitting through an hour of waiting for service. You’re likely to get glared at, whispered about, and occasionally yelled at.
Expedia recently released results from a survey of parents who travel; 76% report receiving “annoying advice from strangers” while en route. Conversely, a survey Expedia released last year shows “inattentive parents” as second on the list of most irritating etiquette breaches (“seat-kicking” is number one). Even those parents of twins mentioned in the first paragraph said, “There’s always that stigma of getting on the plane with babies because people get annoyed if they’re crying.” Clearly kid-free passengers are expecting the worst, since any article you can find about taking a child under eight on a plane has a lengthy comments section which can mostly be summed up with: “I don’t want my flying experience to be ruined by your kid.”
The weird thing about this is: kids are not actually little jerks. They have poor impulse control, and don’t understand when bad things happen to them. Sometimes they get overtired, or hungry, or bored… Just like adults. But they literally never fuss or freak out or want to crawl up and down the aisles of the plane because they are trying to make someone mad. Whereas the people complaining about kids are adults, theoretically capable of controlling their emotions and dealing with situations in a mature fashion… And somehow a single baby crying can wreck their entire trip. Similarly, parents are very rarely inattentive; they may be juggling another child, or trying to get a baby on a plane during naptime, or letting their toddler run around the airport terminal so they’ll sleep better in-flight. Stopping their baby from crawling in the aisle may cause more screaming than the alternative. Basically, parents are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
You see the same thing in hostels. There’s no law that travel on the cheap is the sole purview of 19-25 year olds, but you’d believe it if you checked into a hostel with a child these days. Most folks traveling for longer than a couple of weeks are young and child-free, and often away from home for the first time — they’re there to drink, stay up late, and have exciting conversations with new sexy friends in foreign lands. They really don’t want to be woken up at 7am by a toddler shrieking with laughter in the hallway, or move their laptop cable so it doesn’t get chewed on. They’re often happy to take pictures of traditionally-dressed kids in the marketplace of wherever they are… But let one disturb their dormitory slumber, and all bets are off.
This is patently unfair. Parents are people — people with children — and people like to travel, and want to fly on a plane or stay in a cheap hotel. Parents are probably more respectful of local culture, and have better experiences with locals; instead of getting drunk and flinging garbage around in the street (something I saw very frequently on the “party streets” in Chiang Mai), parents and kids often get to hang out with restaurant staff or get shown the super cool back way to a temple. The times I have been woken up in hostels are all down to rowdy drunks coming home late, or, in one case, the meditator in the bunk above me rolling up his whole mattress to do zazen at 4am.
There’s a feeling of entitlement about these complaints: travelers without kids seem to feel like they are somehow owed a completely childfree experience. Choosing not to have children is a valid life choice. I am not trying to insist that everyone do what I do, or pressure anyone into procreating. I never wanted to either, and I really resented people who told me I’d change my mind. But even if you don’t have a child, you have to live in a world where they exist. The future of our planet is literally dependent on children, and insisting that your travel experience is somehow more important than theirs is not only entitled, it’s selfish.
So I won’t be handing out survival kits containing earplugs any time soon, but I will say this: if absolute silence is that important to you when you travel, I hear Bose noise-cancelling headphones are the bomb.