I don’t like to fly. Coasting above the earth at 500 miles per hour in a horizontal skyscraper—a vessel decidedly not “light as a feather”—makes no sense to me. I understand very little about the mechanics of flight, but I have enough experience with skinned knees to write the book on gravity. First and foremost, it’s a constant and no seat belt, air bag or under-seat floatation device is going to convince me that I can outwit it. Then there’s the issue of being in close quarters with hundreds of strangers—not only are we sharing this experience, we’re quite literally sharing one another’s personal space and oxygen. What 16A blows out, 16B breathes in. Consequently, germs coat the surface of the cabin like the thick, sticky glaze on a hot donut.
However, my daughter loves to fly. To her, flying is magic and like every fairytale she’s ever read, there’s a guaranteed happy ending. Nothing alarms her—not the sticky glob on her tray, the curly hair on the pillow or the sudden change in air pressure. Ignorance, in this case, is absolute bliss.
My family lives on the opposite coast, so my daughter has more than earned her wings in her nearly 7 years of life. Her love affair and experience with flight certainly makes the process easier; we just flew cross-country last week and she sat in quiet meditation for 6 hours only breaking for a nap (no, she wasn’t sedated). But to help your child reach this Zen state means putting down some ground—er, “air”—rules early on.
The key to success is two parts: preparation and consideration.
The first time you fly with a young child, just assume that your little angel will transform into the spawn of Satan and that you will not have the opportunity to place her in timeout or “take her outside.” The two-dozen passengers within earshot will hear your quiet pleas and futile bribes and will be quick to judge, or worse yet, offer advice. To avoid unnecessary contact with strangers (see above), pack a virtual variety show of props and gimmicks; one act per 15 minutes of flight should have you covered. We brought it all: wrapped presents, copious amounts of favorite snacks and slow-melting candy, various media devices, and even old-school entertainment—crayons, paper, stickers—for those few but tedious moments when “anything with an on/off switch” must be disabled and your child looks at you as if the air has been sucked from her lungs. At the end of the show you will be thoroughly exhausted, so if you can divide your time with an understudy (i.e. husband), that’s best. The payoff is when a passenger leans over to you at the end of the flight and says, “My what a good traveler you have!” Forget being in the gifted class or ranking in the 95th percentile for height—this feels so much better.
Which leads me to my second point: “cuteness” has a very small window when it comes to children and flying. Prior to age 2, your offspring can get away with an errant seat kick or a crying jag (which you should always explain away as “air pressure” for sympathy), but once a hotdog is no longer a choking hazard, kids are old enough to understand a few rules. The most important being: Do Not Disturb. That means the seat in front of her is not an accelerator pedal and the tray is not Barbie’s makeshift diving board. And while I’ve learned to appreciate the antics of Sponge Bob, he’s an acquired taste. Bring headphones.
As for the contaminated Petri dish in which you travel, limit your chances of contracting MERSA by wiping down your surroundings. The plummeting-to-your-death scenario is a trickier situation and one that you can really do little about. I spend most of the flight repeating the risk of dying in a crash (9 million to 1) and when that fails, I pray. Or I drink. Or I pray and drink.
And if you’ve done everything within your power and your child still refuses to behave, deploy the death-strategy above: pray that she’ll stop and then buy everyone around you a stiff drink.