Photo: Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke

Just Be Cool: Parents Explain What It's Like to Travel With Kids

by Matt Hershberger Aug 16, 2016

A FEW MONTHS BACK, I TOOK A train down from New Jersey to Charleston for the weekend. About five minutes after I took my seat, a woman sat across from me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lay a portable carseat on the floor as she put her luggage overhead.  From inside the seat, a cute, chubby 6-month-old smiled back at me.

Fuck, I thought. Then, at the next stop, another baby got on.

Fucccccckkkkkk,I thought.

If you’ve ever traveled before, you know why I was pissed: Babies cry. Over a fourteen hour trip, it would be unreasonable to expect the babies not to cry. And for people such as myself — people who were hoping that the trip would involve 8 hours or so of sleep — the presence of babies was unfortunate. It would mean a slightly less restful sleep, and train sleeps are already not great.

“Who brings a fucking baby on a fourteen hour train trip?” I texted my wife.

This isn’t an unusual sentiment among train travelers: according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight, 83% of airline passengers think it’s rude to knowingly bring unruly kids onto a plane. It’s the highest ranked “rude travel behavior” item on their poll, ahead of the dreaded seat recline, ahead of waking someone up to get out of your seat, and ahead of being chatty with a seatmate.

People such as myself, the kidless, are not patient with the kidful. It struck me, while I was feeling sorry for myself, that maybe parents — even parents with grumpy kids — have a right to get from Point A to Point B. And that maybe that right superseded my right to travel in total silence.

So I talked to a few traveling moms about what the kidless need to know about the kidful.

Kids aren’t little adults. They’re kids.

My older sister Laura has a 6-year-old named Alejandro, or Ali, as we call him. Laura, like myself, is a traveler, and goes El Salvador (the country where she met my brother-in-law, and the country where Ali was born) once a year. This, she says, can be stressful, especially when your kid starts behaving like a kid. If Ali starts acting up, though, many people (read: not parents) will be openly annoyed. Which she says is the first problem:

“People who don’t have kids don’t have much of an understanding of what it’s like. They’ll say ‘Oh when I’m a parent, my kid won’t talk to me that way.’ Your kid will talk to you that way sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent… you can’t expect a kid to behave like an adult.”

And the fact that he’s a kid shouldn’t mean he’s homebound:

“I like to take him places, but he’s going to act different when he’s there because he’s a kid.”

She said, “It’s embarrassing for a parent when your kid throws a tantrum,” and adds that showing sympathy for the parent can mean a lot, because sometimes parenting supersedes the desire to make everyone around her feel at peace:

“Sometimes, I’ll give him a screen. But I don’t necessarily want him to be on a screen the whole time. So having an expectation that they’re going to be zoned out and quiet and behaving isn’t reasonable.”

Chelle King agrees. Chelle travels regularly with her 3-year-old Clara, and has been in a similar situation:

“Clara had an awful, awful flight to Seattle once, partially because of some flight delays. I made the mistake of telling her she was finished watching movies and stood my ground, even as the nightmare swirled around me. I knew that it was going to be miserable for everyone, but I had already stepped in it. She finally passed out and someone in a nearby row bought me a glass of wine. I nearly cried I was so grateful, both for the wine and knowing that there was at least one person on the flight who didn’t think I was Satan.”

She adds:

“As a parent, I try really hard to avoid waking the monster, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

How to treat parents traveling with kids

Cathy Brown is the most badass travel mom I know — she’s a writer here at the Matador Network, and she’s a single mom of three. She travels with her kids a lot (her daughter Stella is already an excellent travel writer herself), and has some advice for how the kidless should treat the kidful:

“I’d say that when it comes to being on a plane or in a restaurant with someone who has a kid in the middle of a meltdown, don’t be so quick to get pissed off. Don’t take it personally, like the parent is just doing WHATEVER they can to ruin your vacation. That moment sucks for the parent even more than it sucks for you, because they know damn well how annoying their kid is being. A kind look or some kind words can put the parent at ease, which will ultimately help the kid calm down.”

Laura agrees: “I appreciate when people are thoughtful and sympathetic, and not mean and judgmental.” She also notes that not all places are as judgmental as others about noisy kids: people on a bus in El Salvador will generally try to be helpful with a noisy kid, while people in the US are going to be a bit more likely to grumble. So not getting a silent plane ride may be a quintessential “First World Problem.”

This doesn’t mean, she says, that parents are off the hook for disciplining their kids. “If a kid does something rude or in your face, you have a right to expect a parent to say something.”

Chelle says to just be cool:

“The immediate look from single (especially business) travelers in the security line that says ‘oh, no, look at these assholes with kids’ is a little annoying, but we’re super fast, so it’s also totally unwarranted.”

In short: You aren’t entitled to a family-free flight, and certainly not to a family-free airport. And don’t be so quick to assume that the presence of a kid means that everything’s ruined.

How to help people with kids

On the flip side of that coin, if you want to try and help or talk to a kid, Laura cautions against crossing any lines inadvertently:

“If you’re engaging a child, it’s respectful to ask a parent before offering anything to the kid.”

This isn’t to say, though, that helping is discouraged. Laura remembers being caught in the airport alone with Ali. She had to carry all the luggage, so she couldn’t carry him, and he started falling to pieces. “Especially when you’re traveling alone, it’s harder, and it’s scarier.” She says she didn’t expect anyone to help that time, but would have been incredibly grateful if help had been offered.

Cathy’s kids are older than Laura’s and Chelle’s, and she says it’s important to recognize the differences in age:

“My kids hate it when they are treated like 2 year olds. A hotel or a restaurant always wants to offer them some gender specific toy or activity that is geared for someone much younger. The intention is good, the offer is nice, but it annoys my teenagers to be treated like babies.  Ask if they prefer the kids menu or the regular menu.  Ask if they prefer the Barbie toothpaste and bubble bath or the regular.”

In short, don’t treat kids like they’re stupid (or toddlers, if they aren’t toddlers), and don’t be totally impatient with parents. A little kindness goes a long way. It’s likely you don’t have a full idea of what’s going on with the parent or with the kid, so instead of being cruel, maybe put in some noise-canceling headphones and deal with it.

Cathy also pushed back on the idea that traveling with kids is terrible:

“Traveling with kids, for me, is awesome.  My kids are my favorite travel partners by far.  They are spontaneous, engaged, and they keep it real.  They are curious, ask questions, and don’t get uptight when things go awry. To  them, everything is just part of the adventure.”

Finally, some advice from a kid.

I’m giving the final word to Cathy’s daughter Stella:

“Stella’s advice was for other people to not make a massive deal about a kid traveling.  Don’t baby them — she can’t stand when people treat her like she’s incapable of finding her gate at the airport, etc.  She says there’s a difference between being helpful and acting like a kid can’t do something just because they happen to be away from home.

“She also says people should always offer up the window seat to a kid if the poor kid seems like he/she really wanted one and didn’t get one.”

Seriously, guys. You aren’t going to use the window as much as a kid would anyway.

This article was originally published at Don’t be a Dick Travel and is republished here with permission.

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