Who’s responsible for those little brats on a plane?

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When kids misbehave on a plane, adults like to play the blame game. Who’s responsible for the little brats: the kids, the negligent parents, or the laissez-fare airline?

That’s what Claire Muller-Moseley, a college professor from San Francisco, wanted to know after enduring a recent Air France flight from Paris to San Francisco. And it’s a timely question, given the recent report of a family who was removed from a United Airlines flight amid a disagreement about the inflight entertainment choices.

“The yelling, screaming, and seat kicking of the two children seated behind us was not once stopped by the parents,” she remembers. “I issued disapproving glances over the back of my seat several times, without the parents’ reaction or effort to stop the ear-piercing vocalizations and bad behavior.”

Ignoring the shrieking toddlers didn’t work. Her noise-cancelling headset didn’t block the whining. So she finally turned to the parents and asked them to control their offspring. They did not respond, she says.

“Finally, in desperation I got out of my seat and went back to the cabin attendants and asked for some assistance,” she says. “They spoke to the parents. The noise and chaos abated for a short time and began once again.”

The cycle continued for 11 long hours. Muller-Moseley counted four separate intervention attempts by the Air France attendants. All of them failed.

This case stands out for several reasons. First, the professor is no ordinary air traveler. She’s a subject matter expert who teaches a college course on children’s language and literacy development. So it’s unlikely that her expectations for these young passengers were unrealistically high. Second, the way the airline handled this problem — apologetic, but dismissive — underscores the fact that it’s often difficult to find a guilty party.

And finally, it suggests that despite frequent and heated debates on this topic, we’re no closer to finding an acceptable solution to the “kids on planes” problem.

Air France apologizes

After Muller-Moseley contacted Air France about her nightmare flight, she received a short, apologetic response from Delta Air Lines, which represents Air France in the United States.

“We care about the well-being and safety of all our passengers,” it said in an email, “and we strive to provide everyone with an enjoyable and comfortable cabin environment. It is disheartening to learn that despite all attempts made, our flight crew did not manage to reverse the intolerable environment you endured during your transatlantic flight.”

Delta offered her and her husband two $50 gift cards to make up for the trouble.

That’s not enough for her.

“While I realize the airline can’t be wholly responsible for children’s behavior, I do feel that as a full paying customer my tranquility and comfort should be reasonably assured,” she says. “Just as if it were an adult creating the disruption and discomfort, there should be penalties for these unacceptable behaviors manifested by the children and tolerated by the parents. The parents should be held accountable.”

Who’s to blame?

Muller-Moseley’s contention that the parents are responsible for their children’s bad behavior is one I hear often. And at this point, I should probably admit my own bias: I’m the father of three young children. I usually love traveling with them, but not always. Like everyone else, they have good days and bad days.

To assume I have some kind of remote control that determines exactly what they do on a plane would be patently false, of course. No one can always control their kids.

A more extreme version of Muller-Moseley’s position is that there’s no such thing as a bad child, only a bad parent.

In a recent National Geographic Traveler column, I admitted that I lost control of my six-year-old daughter on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles. She jumped from seat to seat, ran down the aisles, and screamed for part of the trip. I did everything I could to quiet her, including offering her food, a book, video games, and my undivided attention. Nothing worked.

And still, readers scolded me for being a bad parent.

“You say think about others,” chided Loretta McCarter. “Were you thinking about others when you traveled with kids that you could have guessed were not prepared for flying? Were you as their parents prepared for their boredom, sore ears, sitting for hours?”

(As a matter of fact, we were — but kids can be unpredictable.)

I can see how flight attendants — and indeed, airlines — feel just as powerless. You can try to reason with a passenger but sometimes, no matter what you say, children will act up.

I wasn’t on Muller-Moseley’s flight, but based on her description of the events, the parents were pretty clueless. They behaved as if the main cabin was a playground for their children. That’s unacceptable.

“Offensive,” she says.

OK, offensive.

Maybe the solution to the problem of unruly kids is a little education: Helping parents understand the challenges of air travel, and how it can affect the behavior of their children. Also, helping them realize that they can’t just let their kiddies run free.

And perhaps, helping other passengers understand that no matter what we try, kids will be kids.

Who is responsible for misbehaving kids on a plane?

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