In late August, I flew with my family from Philadelphia to Seattle for a last hurrah of summer. I sat with my daughter on one side of the plane while my husband and son sat across the aisle. Seated in the row behind us was a father and two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. Across the aisle behind my husband sat the mother of the two kids.
I have to admit that when I saw that I was seated in front of a toddler, I was less than thrilled. I had to remind myself that both of my children were 11 days old the first time they flew and that they have been on many flights since then. They have always been excellent travelers, but there were occasions in which they fussed or whined or cried. There may have been an occasional shriek. Fellow passengers have always shown forbearance, and I am committed to extending that same courtesy to other families traveling with young children.
I thought I might get material for a blog post from the family behind me, but I had no idea that I would be sharing what a delight it was to witness the incredible skill of the father as he negotiated the entire five-hour flight. (Not sure how Mom got the sit-alone-and-read-for-5-solid-hours gig!) Here are a few examples of what he did so expertly:
- Dad talked about every phase of the flight as if it were the most exciting moment of his life. He never said “I hate take-off,” or “This flight is going to feel like forever,” or “Those flight attendants are taking their sweet time with the beverage carts.” Instead, I heard him say things like “The pilot will need our help getting this plane off the ground; get ready to pull back on your rudders,” and “When we get into the air, watch how the cars and buildings below us get smaller and smaller,” and “Just wait until we are inside a cloud; it is so cool!” This demonstrates an important truth: Children sense and absorb the mood of the adults around them; if you want kids to feel positive and behave calmly, then it is essential that you give off a positive, calm vibe.
- Dad gave each of the children jobs to do or engaged them in activities at various points along the way. For example, I heard him say to his daughter “Here’s a picture of the United States. When I tell you what state we are flying over, you color it in so we can map our progress toward Washington.” To his son, he said “Those bumps are called turbulence. During the bumpy times, you help the pilot keep the plane on course by keeping the rudder steady.” At one point, he asked his daughter to read a simple picture book to her brother which she proudly did. At another time, he engaged his son in a game of finding animal shapes in the clouds. This demonstrates another important truth: Bored children cannot remain pleasant for long; kids need to be entertained and/or productive in order to maintain good behavior. It is essential to preempt misbehavior with engagement; if you wait until a child is already restless and cranky, your attempts to engage him will serve as positive reinforcement for negative behavior. Read more about this here and here.
- Dad offered frequent praise for the children’s good behavior. Here are some examples I overheard: “You are doing a great job helping out the pilot. He is lucky you are on this flight.” “Wow, your reading is great. I am impressed that you know words like dinosaur and longest. Those are big words!” After his toddler had taken a brief nap, Dad exclaimed, “A nap was a good idea; now you will be all rested up and ready to help the pilot land this plane.” Once again, this talented father demonstrated an important truth: Praise and attention are very powerful rewards that encourage good behavior.
- At several points during the flight, I could not hear anything from the row behind me. Each time, I assumed that Dad had plugged the kids into a movie or game on his laptop. I would not have judged him negatively if he had; five or six hours is a long time to be cooped up with two little kids. But, each time I stole a look between the seats, I saw the kids entertaining themselves – with books, with snacks, with crayons and paper. Once or twice, they were gazing out at the night sky and twinkling city lights. Dad never pulled out an electronic device, opened a novel, or took a nap. And the final truth demonstrated by this wonderful dad on this long flight with these two little kids: Effective parenting is hard work but the payoffs are great.
At the end of the flight, while all the weary travelers were waiting to deplane, I chatted with the family. I complimented the father on his well-behaved children. I asked the children if they were happy to be in Seattle; they both said yes. The little girl explained that it was already midnight in Philadelphia. I asked them how they got to be such great fliers. The little boy piped up and said “Daddy taught me how to fly a plane!” I’m not sure he was answering the question I intended to ask, but I think the answer to that question would have been very similar. Indeed, it is clear that Dad, with his excellent parenting skills, taught them how to be such good travelers.