Voyage of the Damned

What to do about screaming children on planes

Words: Lee Tulloch

Is it ever OK to discipline another person’s child?

I don’t mean in Christopher Tsiolkas way, with a slap. But I do mean a firm admonishment to behave or an intervention to get the child to calm down.

Children go wild for all kinds of reasons and often they’re just wound up or overtired. But what if the child is really misbehaving, even if they’re too young to understand the consequences of their actions?  A stern word from someone other than the parents often can break the cycle of misbehaviour. But if you do this, are you a meddling busybody?

I was mulling over this a week ago, on a flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur. Mr Amos and I were stuck in the back of the plane in the section where the airlines put all the children.

Luckily it was a day flight, and we weren’t trying to grab any sleep. But, through some unhappy alignment of the stars, the many children onboard were mostly toddlers and babies, exhibiting toddler and baby behaviour over the eight-hour duration of the flight.

That meant that crying, whingeing and high-pitched screaming arising symphonically from each section of the plane, one starting up and setting the others off. But that was OK. The parents were doing their best and soon the child was settled or distracted.

One set of parents patiently walked their active little boy around the aisles, for hours it seemed, so that he didn’t whinge and disturb the other passengers. They win a chocolate frog for that.

But I’m still worried about one child. It was not the little girl’s fault and I feel sorry for her. It’s possibly not the parents’ fault either, as the mother was so young I though at first she was the big sister. The couple had a baby as well as the two-year old daughter, and the baby cried frequently. So I try not to be judgemental.

The furious little girl was either in the aisle standing screaming, or sitting on her father’s lap, shrieking.

But really. The little girl threw a seven-hour long tantrum, interrupted by a blessed hour when, so wound up, she fell into a coma of exhaustion. The parents didn’t seem to be disturbed by this at all. They tried to get her to calm down sporadically, but when she cycled out of control, they put her down in the aisle and let her run wild.

The child stood ferociously, glaring at her father, her fists rolled up in fury, punching anyone who went past, and screaming so uncontrollably and continually I thought she might have an aneurism.

Sometimes she flung herself on the aisle floor, fists balled, other times she flung herself at her father in his aisle seat, sobbing and begging him to pick her up. The flight attendants didn’t help and just moved her out of the way when they were rolling their carts down the aisle.

I tried to tell myself that perhaps the poor child was having a reaction to Phenergan, the drug some parents use to sedate their children on long flights. Or perhaps she had a disability. But at the start of the flight I noticed the little girl would shriek to get her father’s attention and he encouraged it. Abandoned by him to the aisle, her fury spiralled out of control.

The woman sitting in front of the family was a saint. She was a row behind the bulkhead, which was chock full with babies all unsettled at some point. The furious little girl was either in the aisle standing beside her screaming, or sitting on her father’s lap, shrieking, and kicking the back of the seat. On a few occasions, the child was in the aisle and the baby was on its father’s lap banging the in-seat video screen violently.

Yet the patient woman said nothing, nor did anyone else in the vicinity. I think each of us was trying hard not to be the busybody.  But experiencing such unconstrained rage from a little one was traumatic. That was way more unpleasant than the inconvenience of not being able to hear the movie because of the screaming.

We all made it KL safely, if a bit rattled. The child didn’t hurt herself physically, miraculously. So maybe we were right not to intervene, although about twenty people had a hell flight.

Truthfully, I had to fight against my instinct to do so all the way. It wouldn’t have been a slap – more like a Julie Bishop death stare. That would have been more effective than Phenergan.







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