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Parents as Censors: Modern Family Travel Reality?

Bad TV at 30,000 feet? This is not the answer.

Bad TV at 30,000 feet? This is not the answer.

By now you probably have read about the incident on a United Airlines flight last month in which a pilot misconstrued a father’s request to shut off an inappropriate movie as a security threat.

Details of how things played out are ugly: Inappropriate scene came on, family objected, family asked politely that the movie be turned off, one thing led to another, pilot diverted plane and called the feds. (For a good rundown, read this synopsis/analysis piece by my friend and fellow blogger, Amy Graff.)

Lost in the ridiculousness of this story is an issue with which many of us family travelers grapple frequently: The challenge of protecting our children’s innocence when we fly the supposedly friendly skies.

In the case of this particular family, since the movie was “Alex Cross,” I’m guessing it was a violent scene that they felt crossed the line. During our travels, Powerwoman and I have experienced eerily similar sentiments about equally inappropriate subjects of in-flight films: overt drug use, homophobia and violent sex scenes.

When we are outraged, we do what it sounds like this family did (at least at first): We complain politely to the flight attendants.

Usually, this gets us nowhere.

After that, we take a two-pronged approach. On the plane, we use books, word games and other tactics (including “Sofia the First” on our Kindle Fire) to distract the kids from looking at the television screens. Once we’re back at home, we write letters to the respective airlines to formalize our criticisms that way.

To be honest, this follow-up strategy usually doesn’t work either. Kids are drawn to television like moths to fire, and no matter how hard we try to distract them on the plane, they always seem to figure out a way to watch at least a part of the action.

(Then, of course, they ask incessant questions about what they saw.)

Adding insult to injury, I think the best “response” we’ve gotten from one of our letters was a $250 voucher to fly the same disappointing airline again.

The bottom line: If we, as parents in today’s society, want to wield some sort of influence on the types of material to which our children are exposed while flying, we simply must be more active censors.

I’m not saying I expect all airlines to limit themselves to PG-rated content for the sake of us families—trust me, I’ll never take that kind of entitled perspective. But I am saying that when we parents fly with kids, we never know what kind of images might be on those airplane screens, and we better be ready with more palatable material to divert their attention in a pinch.

Books, movies, TV shows, word games, Wikki Stix—we should ALWAYS have this stuff at the ready on a plane.

Amy, my blogger buddy, closes her piece with another great suggestion: Be mindful of the ability to control an airplane’s content when you book. “Look for an airline with individual screens on seatbacks so your kids can watch Nickelodeon throughout the flight,” she writes.

Hear, here, my friends. The more proactive you can be when you fly with kids, the better.

Love Letter to a Champion of Family Travelers

Don't hate me because she's my traveling partner.

Don’t hate me because she’s my traveling partner.

I’ve never met Susan Reimer, but if and when I do, I’m buying her a beer (or non-alcoholic beverage of her choice).

Earlier this week, she published a piece in The Baltimore Sun imploring airplane passengers to be nicer to solo moms traveling with kids. The story, titled, “Babies on a Plane,” chronicled Reimer’s observations while flying across the country for the Easter/Passover holiday. And those observations weren’t pretty. The two biggies:

  • Solo moms, laden with strollers and other gear, managing unhappy babies and kids.
  • Passengers, laden with judgment, shooting death glares toward the aforementioned moms (and their aforementioned little ones).

For me, these observations are nothing new; I’ve experienced them first-hand when I travel with my kids, and I wrote a ton for Parenting about the larger problem (see here and here). What was different, however, and, to be honest, intoxicatingly wonderful, was Reimer’s tone.

She was firm yet hopeful. Didactic, but not annoyingly so. At one point, she came out and asked, point blank: “How about if we start [changing our ways] with a little sympathy?”

Then, with this snip, she transported herself to family travel-writing nirvana:

    “Why reward mom’s sincere attempt to keep family ties vibrant with your arrogance? Why not praise her endurance and her juggling act and offer to take the baby on your lap for a bit so she can drink her Diet Coke in peace? Or visit the bathroom? Why not turn around and distract the irritated kid kicking your seat with your bracelet, your funny faces or one of your pretzels? Why not offer a few words of praise as a mom grabs up all her stuff and, with a kid by the hand and another on the hip, gamely tries to exit the plane?”

I applaud the author not only for her message, but in the way she delivered it—with humor, humility and a hearty dose of chutzpah. Reimer’s column likely isn’t going to change a lot of minds, but every scintilla of sensibility makes a difference on this issue, and we family travelers need all the help we can get.

A Primer to ‘Get Your Kids Hiking’

Alt's new book.

Alt’s new book.

My favorite kinds of family trips are those for which we spend a ton of time in nature. Day hikes, camping—you name the outdoorsy activity and it’s on my list. In this case, you could call me a Louvite, which is to say that I ascribe to the beliefs and research of Richard Louv.

This also explains why I loved Jeff Alt’s forthcoming book, “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!” In the book, the Cincinnati-based author offers tips and tricks on age-appropriate ways to include your child in all aspects of a hike, checklists of what to pack for any type of hike and advice for hiking with a special needs child. In short, he presents the Appalachian Trail of books about family travel outdoors.

I recently caught up with Alt to ask him about his work. Here are some highlights of our chat.

Q. Why is it so hard for parents to get their kids to embrace the outdoors?
A. There’s a fear factor that’s been instilled; within my own family ranks, we have families that literally are afraid of the outdoors. Also, as parents we’re all so busy now, and handing your kid a Smart phone or a gadget is easier and instantly quiets them down. So there are bad habits that have formed.

Q. What are the biggest challenges around building family vacation around being outside?
A. The biggest challenge is finding something age-appropriate. Some people might feel limited if their children are just starting to walk on their own or the kids are too heavy in a child carrier. My philosophy is that from birth to age 3, you can do whatever you want, so long as you can carry your child. Whatever you decide to do with your kids in terms of hiking, I wouldn’t recommend extreme weather hiking. And nothing too strenuous.

Q. Gear is so expensive these days. How can a family take up hiking without breaking the bank?
A. Gear can be expensive, but in general, hiking is probably the cheapest form of family time and entertainment available. If you think about it, you can acquire everything you need from second-hand clothing store. Child carriers, clothes, things like that. Finding long john underwear for your kids is harder; sometimes brand like Patagonia is the only choice in that department. Also, when they start to hike more, then you want to look at a good pair of running shoes with a decent sole on the bottom. If you have more than one child, buy things in neutral-colored clothing so that your young son can wear what your daughter wore.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to teach kids about life on the trail?
A. My first goal when I take my kids out is to make sure they know we’re not required to get anywhere or do anything. I follow their lead. If they want to walk for an hour, we do that. If they want to skip rocks across a creek a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we do that. I call this ‘child-directed hiking.’ My goal as a father is to make the whole experience so much fun that they want to go again and again. If they seem engaged on a hike, I know the hike has been a success. Another key lesson is to make sure they know that they should take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures.

Q. How old is old enough to overnight in the backcountry?
A. Personally, I don’t recommend hiking overnight until a child is old enough to carry some or most of their gear. Another potential problem with getting kids to do overnights too soon: You run the risk of putting your child into this forced road march, which could turn them off to the point where they won’t go again. I recommend base-camping and day hiking from there. Before you leave on your adventure, I recommend taking walks with the equipment you’re going to wear so that you—and your kids—can get used to it. Make sure the only surprises are what they’ll find on the trail. This will make everyone happier in the end.

To Bring or Not to Bring: Car Seats on a Plane


For us, these work in the car; not so much on the plane.

A friend and fellow parent asked me this week advice about taking her 3-year-old son’s car seat on the plane. Her main question: Is it worth the hassle? My response: It depends on whom you ask. And on your kid.

The “whom you ask” part is pretty straightforward.

In a kick-ass Q&A with, Dr. Alicia Baer, a pediatrician in the NICU at Columbia University Children’s Hospital in New York and certified instructor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s car seat course, said that when a child is riding in a moving vehicle, it’s always safest to have him or her strapped into a special seat.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) echoes these sentiments, stating pretty clearly on its website that car seats (or at least devices with child-restraint systems) are a good idea, and that parents should use them whenever possible.

Still, despite their obvious safety benefits, in certain cases, car seats on a flight actually might make your life more challenging.

Which brings me to my second point: It depends on your kid.

If your son or daughter is great at a) listening, b) sitting still and c) generally being calm upon request, having him or her strapped into a car seat for the duration of an airplane flight might be a very realistic goal.

But if your child is like my girls, if he or she needs to be free to do whatever it is these kids like to do over long periods of time, outside of take-off and landing (when the kids are required to be strapped in anyway) the car seat is the modern-day equivalent of a torture device—for them, for you and for all of the passengers around you.

(As we all know, other passengers don’t need more reasons to hate family travelers.)

On plane trips with the Villano family, it’s actually easier for us to bring car seats and check them than it is to bring them, schlep them on the plane, strap them in and fight the girls to stay put.

No, our strategy probably wouldn’t be Dr. Baer’s first choice. But we keep the girls safe. And it works. Whether the same approach will work for you depends on your children—and, of course, on whom else you ask.

What’s your take on this issue? When you fly with your young kids, do you bring their car seats on board or check them through to your destination? Why? Leave a comment and let me know.

Why Family Travel Begs You to Rattle Routines


The swing out front.


Here at home, my wife and I bend over backward to make sure L and R are tubbed, brushed and in bed by 7:30 p.m., at the latest every night. On the road, however, “bedtime” in this family becomes a much more relative term.

This is entirely by design; when we travel, the entire endeavor is about allowing our kids to experience the wonder of a new place, whatever that might mean.

Before you call me a slacker, I assure you—we are *not* letting our daughters stay up until 10 p.m., every night of vacation. But some nights, if there’s a particularly spectacular sunset, a too-amazing-to-be-real starry sky, an enthralling local cultural performance or just a really engaging new book, we are inclined to let things slide.

Our thinking behind this approach is simple. It amounts to: Why the heck not?

The kids have their entire lifetimes to follow routines and stick to sleep schedules, and on vacation, when the overarching objective is to embrace the unknown, allowing them to get caught up in certain moments is better for everybody—for us and for them.

Perhaps the best example of this was in June 2012, on one magical night during our two-week stay at Puakea Ranch on Hawaii Island.

The baby went down early (around 5:30 p.m.) in the midst of a torrential rain shower that sounded like marbles on the corrugated metal roof of our cottage. Then, suddenly, around 6:30 p.m., the skies cleared. And the most beautiful rainbow appeared. Right outside our front door.

L, Powerwoman and I rushed out front for a closer look, huddling up near a rope swing that hung from the gnarled guava tree. We looked skyward and stood motionless, necks craned, mouths agape.

None of us spoke for at least five minutes.

Of course L’s interest in the rainbow disappeared before the rainbow itself. Taking its place was interest in a new first: the swing. And so, for the last 30 minutes of sunlight on that warm Hawaii evening, Powerwoman pushed our Big Girl on the rope swing, singing songs, telling stories and marveling at the peacefulness of tropical dusk.

The three of us stayed out for a while after dark, pointing out constellations and listening to horses whinny in a pasture around the bend.

To be honest, I have no idea what time my older daughter went to bed that night. But I know she still talks about it all today. I’m willing to bet the kid remembers that night for a long, long while. I know I will.