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Air Travel

Kids Kicking Your Airline Seat? Here’s How to Handle It Politely—and Effectively

How to know when to deal with it yourself—and when to involve a crew member.

Ask any flight attendant what time of year they dread working the most, and a majority of them would tell you it’s the summer months. Schools and colleges are out for the season, parents are taking their earned vacations to spend time with their children, and everyone else just wants to get outside and enjoy the weather. Flight attendants don’t dread the season because the flights are full, they dread it because planes are packed with passengers traveling with kids—and those who aren’t used to traveling around kids.

Although not a parent myself, as a former flight attendant, I’ve seen the work that most parents put into traveling with their children. Many board the plane with a bag of toys, electronics, snacks, and coloring books just hoping that one of those items will keep their kids occupied enough to prevent them from becoming rambunctious around the other passengers. Inevitably, no matter the amount of prep prior to departure, some kids will end up disrupting the overall comfort of the flight by screaming, crying, or kicking the seat in front of them. 

This triggers one of the most awkward requests that a passenger could ask of a flight attendant: to help with a rambunctious child. Despite being trained to assist in emergency situations, crew members aren’t taught how to soothe a screaming child or calm a stressed-out parent. But there are some circumstances in which a passenger should ask a flight attendant to intervene. Here’s how to tell the difference.

First, try to be patient or helpful

If you’re seated near a child, and their actions are disturbing you and your comfort, it’s best to try and handle the situation before getting others involved. Often, a bit of patience goes a long way. “Parents know their kids are being disruptive. It only adds fuel to the fire if another passenger jumps in and reiterates that to the parent as if they weren’t already aware," says Susan Marks, a flight attendant based in Los Angeles. "Offer a friendly nod with a smile. That lets the parent know you’re aware of the disruption, and it also acknowledges that they’re cognizant of it disrupting everyone around them. When people jump right into saying something along the lines of ‘that’s annoying,’ it only makes matters worse.”

When I was a flight attendant myself, I was always amazed at the passengers who were able to gracefully offer to help out. For example, Michelle Payer, a luxury travel journalist and frequent flier based in Miami, says she has “successfully used [her] small dog as a distraction” when seated near an upset child. “I’ve also jangled keys, made paper airplanes, and tried to pitch in and help beleaguered parents,” she says.

Distraction seems to be a reliable method to calming a boisterous child. Roughly two hours into her eight-hour flight to France with her young daughter, travel television show host Nikki Noya overheard a crying child; she and her daughter decided to help. “I took her over there with coloring books and snacks just to see what we could do,” Noya says.

Sometimes, however, even the most valiant efforts of a fellow passenger to soothe a child fall short. That could be the time to flag down a member of the cabin crew.

When to get a flight attendant involved

Those non-audible annoyances such as kicking the seat in front of them, excessively pressing the call button, climbing over and under the seats, and disobeying the seatbelt sign? Most of these actions are safety-related and warrant a flight attendant getting involved if it gets out of control. But even for flight attendants, the situation is not always simple to resolve. In some cases, parents are doing the best they can, and in others, well, maybe there’s room for improvement. I always approached the situation by stopping by their row and asking “Is there anything I can get for you?” figuring it sent enough of a signal that whatever was happening was starting to disrupt others.

Many flight attendants say their own responses to such complaints depends on the parents’ actions. “We have to be a skilled negotiator in these situations,” says Aimee LaMay, a flight attendant based in Orlando. “As a mom myself, there’s a fine line between asking the parent if they need help, and having it appear that we’re telling them that they’re not doing their job. If there’s any sign that they’re trying to solve the situation, I’ll leave them alone. Why add the stress? If it appears that they’re not trying to help the situation, I’ll go over and talk to the kids myself and see if that sparks a response from the parent. If it doesn’t, then I’ll explain to the parents the tools, if any are available, that we have to help and see if we can work on a plan together.” Those potential tools can range from an extra snack or cup or juice from the galley or free activity kits offered by some major airlines.

Sometimes, however, it's the parents who put airline crew in an awkward position. As a flight attendant, I once had a parent ring their call button after the seatbelt sign had been turned on, and explain to me that their child refused to buckle up. The parent told me she had tried to tell her child she needed to wear her seatbelt but hoped she would listen to “someone of authority.” So I spoke directly to the child and said, “The captain says the airplane is going to hit a few bumps, and he thinks you need to wear your seatbelt, just like in a car, to stay safe. OK?” That was met with a quick, “No!” to which the parent replied, “It’s okay to yell at her, you can go ahead and yell at her or be sterner.” I didn’t do either of those things—can you imagine how fast it would have ended up on YouTube and taken out of context? Instead, I opted to put the onus on the parent to buckle up her child.

A misbehaving child on a flight can be uncomfortable for everyone on board, including—and maybe sometimes especially—for the parents. Approaching parents and children with kindness, and escalating the matter to cabin crew only as a last resort is usually the best approach. Remember, as with all things related to tense air travel these days, a little empathy can do a lot to smooth things over. As Noya puts it: “I was [once] that woman that cringed when a baby was howling. Now I feel the parents’ pain.”