Thursday, November 10, 2011

Holiday Travel and Child Abuse

Airport Security New Rules, from Flickr by Mike Licht
As we approach the holiday season, when so many Americans travel to visit family, I thought I’d relate a couple of recent experiences of air travel with my young son. My guess is that my experiences are not unique. But I would certainly be curious to hear if any of you have had similar experiences.

Denver Airport Security from Flickr, by Inha Leex Hale
As we all know, it takes a great deal of patience and tolerance for abuse and humiliation to even make it onto the plane these days. With a small child the challenges are even greater, as they tend to have far less patience and no reason to understand or accept the new status quo of long lines, frisks and interrogations, disrobing and de-shoeing, not to mention the absurd and growing list of forbidden items.

Knowing this, my wife and I plan meticulously for each trip, packing snacks and toys and a portable DVD player to help ease the boredom. However, as we also all know, no amount of planning can possibly prepare you for everything. The airlines and TSA seem to create new rules every day or apply them arbitrarily.

For example, on one recent trip, my son realized he needed to pee after we were already strapped down and had pulled away from the terminal. However, after pulling away, the plane waited another 20 minutes just a few feet away. During this pause, my wife decided to make an attempt to get to the bathroom with our son. They were thwarted, however, by an attendant who got on the public address system and ordered them back to their seats immediately or the plane would return to the terminal and not take off at all.

The threat was made loudly enough for everyone on the plane to hear and was clearly an attempt to rally the other passengers against us, to blame us for the ruination of their trips. However, the other message they were sending was that they expected our boy to shit or piss in his pants and onto their seat and to stew in his own excrement for the duration of the flight. They also expected us and our neighbors to accept that and they seemed to feel that it was quite alright to publicly humiliate a small child who took great pride in being able to go the potty like a grown up, rather than in his pants, like a baby.
"Poland Spring" Image from flickr by Aoife city Womanchile
 Fortunately, we had an empty water bottle from the airport and my wife thought we could have him pee into that. It was the only time I felt like we got our money’s worth from one of those overpriced airport beverages.

Not only was our boy able to relieve himself without embarrassment, but we were able to hand the portable potty back to the attendant, its contents obvious to all on the plane, much to the satisfaction of everyone except the attendant, who was clearly disgusted. In fact, numerous other passengers complimented my wife on her ingenuity and poise. Our desperate attempt to help our child avoid humiliation was seen as a successful act of rebellion by our neighbors on the plane who, like us, were fed up with the repressive conditions of air travel.

Our son has started to have nightmares recently. This is not uncommon for a child of his age. He's been going through a lot of changes, including starting a new preschool, with a lot of new rules and expectations. However, he is just now starting to be able to remember his nightmares and talk about them. One of them was about being trapped in an elevator  when he desperately needed to use the potty. This could just be a coincidence or it could be related to the airplane experience. An elevator is a small enclosed space, like an airplane. Like in his dream, he was trapped and denied access to the potty.

When Parenting Becomes Terrorism
On another recent trip home from visiting family, I was flying alone with my son. It was late, close to his bedtime. I plugged in his portable DVD player and tried to relax with a magazine. A flight attendant approached us and said he had to use headphones or turn it off. I told him I would be happy to, would he please give us a set?

“We don’t provide them,” he replied with a snotty tone.

“Well, like I said, I’d be happy to use them if you could give me a pair,” I said as pleasantly and calmly as I could.

“And like I said,” he repeated with a threatening tone, “We don’t provide them, so you’ll have to turn it off.”

I explained that my son was only three and that no one was complaining about the volume and that if they did, we’d be happy to turn it down. I also explained that a little noise from a video that was keeping a small boy content would probably be considered preferable to everyone around than a small, cranky, overtired boy wailing the entire flight. I also explained that we had flown numerous times with the DVD player and never been requested to use headphones before, including the flight down.

Of course, my logic and protestations were irrelevant and useless, as this man clearly had an unwavering need to be in control and to be right. This was his little fiefdom and he was the boss. So I pretended to obey, and reached over and started to turn the machine down, rather than off. This seemed to satisfy him and he started to walk away.

Later, when he returned for our drink orders, I asked for an apple juice for my son and a whiskey for myself. He scowled at me and acted as if my request was somehow inappropriate or illegal. Thinking that he wanted me to grovel, I calmly, but condescendingly said, “Excuse me sir, may I please have a whiskey and an apple juice?”

This was clearly a mistake. “No, you may not. You’ve had enough to drink! I’m not serving you and I’m calling the police!” (In reality, I had not had a drop to drink for the past 24 hours, let alone the past hour).

When we arrived at SFO, at 9:30, with my son asleep in my arms, me carrying his backpack and my own carry-on, there were 13 police officers waiting to cart me away to jail and give my son away to CPS, or so I feared.

What actually happened was far less traumatizing. The cops saw that I was a pleasant and sober daddy lovingly caring for a very sleepy young child and that there was no need for this excessive show of force. So they all left, except for one, who asked me what had happened on the flight, cross checked my name with their known terrorists and no-fly lists, and then sent us on our way with a bunch of SFPD stickers for my son.

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