What To Do With Kids On A Plane

November 13, 2012 in Asia, Inspiration, Thailand

We sat long on the beach last night, sipping beers with a few traveling friends, while the kids played in the water as it turned from sapphire blue to inky black. One family recently flew to Asia from Canada. The other family is staring down a long flight from Bangkok to Scotland with a four year old. The third family flew from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in one long shot with a five year old. You can guess which direction the conversation turned toward:

What do you do with your kids on a plane?

I remember what it was like to wonder how we were going to fill long hours strapped into an airplane seat with kids who were accustomed to playing outside long hours and running off their excess energy in laps around the house. Invariably the weeks and days leading up to the “big flight” were filled with anxiety and preparation. We’ve flown with newborn babies, toddlers, young school aged kids and now with teenagers, in endless combinations. I can say with confidence that the hardest age to fly with is toddlers, 2-4 year olds are just tough to keep cool for the long haul without naps and the comforts of home. However, there are some strategies that we’ve come by the hard way and learned from families with more experience than us, along the way that can make it easier:

Stay Healthy, Get Sleep

You can stack the deck in your favour by taking off healthy and well rested. Take your immunity boosters the week before you fly, stick to comfortable routines, for parents and children, and don’t burn the midnight oil packing. Healthy kids are happier kids. Mamas are more patient when they’re well rested.

Prepare Up Front

I was on Boots-N-All’s RTW chat a week or so ago and the inevitable argument about whether or not kids should be allowed on certain flights came up. There is a demographic that believes that kids should be “off” of certain flights and “seen but not heard” on the ones they are allowed on.

Sean asked me the big question: “So what do you think? About kids on flights? Should they be there? Do these people have a point? What do we do as parents.”

It’s a loaded question of course. My answer is two-fold:

  1. Yes, people of all ages should be allowed on flights, otherwise, it’s age discrimination and who do we cut out next, the infirm, the mentally impaired who we find inconvenient, or the elderly who might set our schedules off by having a mid-flight heart attack? 
  2. You can’t expect a kid to behave on the airplane in a way he would not at home. Parents need to do their homework.

If your kid never learns to sit quietly and enjoy a book at home, he’ll never do it on an airplane.

If you haven’t discussed the importance of not kicking the back of Mama’s seat while you’re driving in the car, how can you expect your child to know to keep from kicking the seat in front of him on the plane? If he hasn’t been introduced to the concepts of an “indoor voice,” or “other people matter,” they aren’t going to magically come to those realizations the moment the plane door closes.

Spend some time “practicing” at home so that when you get on the plane, your kids are ready, willing and able, to be productive members of the society that surrounds them in the air.

Create A Travel Journal

Children’s travel journals like the Fly-It-Quiet Activity Packs that Family-Travel-Scoop puts out are a fantastic way to prepare a child for the destination you’re headed to.

For years I’ve printed out and made my own, but these make it so much easier. You can download them by destination and by age group, for littler kids, and bigger kids and are print them out before you go! They’re loaded with information, fantastic photos and age appropriate activities, including basic language introductions to keep your child busy in flight!

They incorporate art, culture, history and geography in about thirty pages of fun games and interesting puzzles and colouring pages that will take a child a little while to work her way through and also create a very special keepsake for the journey!

Pack A Secret Weapon

You know, a secret weapon, the ace you keep up your sleeve for maintaining an ambient level of cheerfulness in the children and yourself? What should you have in your secret weapon? Little things. Quiet things. Special Things.

Things you don’t tell your kids about before you get on the plane:

  • new crayons
  • a pad of paper
  • stickers (sparkly ones especially!)
  • wikki stix (wax bendy sculpture toys)
  • a water ring game (old school style, where you push the buttons to woosh the rings around, remember?)
  • a kaleidoscope
  • an invisible ink game or color book
  • travel books for kids
  • a new story book or two
  • a “Where’s Waldo” or “I Spy” book
  • new matchbox cars, polly pockets or squinkies (think small!)
  • snacks that are not sugar laden (nuts, or crackers, protein bars or dried fruit)

You get the idea.

Here’s a hot tip that stopped traffic in an interview I gave recently:

Carry a secret weapon whether you have kids or not.

It’s not a big deal to carry two or three little things in your carry-on that will distract a fussy kid, help out a struggling mama and generally make you the cape flapping hero of the whole plane by staving off a toddler fit. I carry one. Always. My big kids each carry one. We fan out on planes and look for kids to keep happy.

Yes, seriously.

Break the Rules

“I know… we caved, we let him use the iPad, we NEVER do that at home, and I feel kinda guilty about it, but man, it was a 14 hour flight…” the young Dad on the other side of the interview almost apologized to me as he admitted it. “I don’t know, I mean, what do you think about that, about letting kids plug in and zone out like that on a flight?” He looked at me sheepishly from the other side of the world through the video chat.

I just laughed.

“GOOD! Plug him in! Let him play! If’ you’ve done everything else, your nine hours in, he’s exhausted and you’re exhausted, let the kid play with the iPad or watch a movie for the last few hours! It’s not going to kill him!”

What’s more, a 14 hour flight is an extreme day. It calls for extreme measures. It’s a day to break all of the rules and make it crazy fun! If that means a movie marathon through the in-seat entertainment system, so be it!

The measure of your parenthood is NOT what you do on any given day, it’s the cumulative effect of what you’re characterized by. If your kids, largely, are unplugged, then a 10 hour game binge is going to be a blast and will go a long way to keeping them happy and you relaxed on an otherwise very hard day.

The dad on the other side of the screen visibly relaxed. “Yeah, you’re right, we’d never strap him down for 14 hours at home, I guess it’s good to break the rules and throw it all out the window on days like that. We do the same for ourselves, right?”

Right. Exactly right.

The other side of the “break all the rules” coin: it’s not just about keeping your kid happy, it’s about respecting the fact that 200 other people are trapped in a tube with you and the peace of their day matters more than your particular philosophy on technology and it’s place in a childhood. You do what you have to do to keep that kid under wraps because other people matter. Might as well break all the rules and make it FUN in the process, right?!

What are your tips for flying with little people? What’s worked for your family? How do you help others?