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Plane and Simple

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I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Miami airport yesterday, and I saw something that disturbed me.

woman carrying boxes of toys on plane

Brett Berk: No, it was not the extra-large chili cheese fries at the Nathan's Hot Dog stand, which come with a tiny pitchfork with which one is supposed to stab and slurp at them. And it was not the crappy public art atrium, which was filled with high school kids' lame drawings of palm trees and tropical fish. It was a bag. Not just any bag, but a large, clear plastic shopping bag that hung by its handles from the back of the stroller in which a young kid was being pushed toward the boarding line by his mother.

I wasn't worried about suffocation or consumerism or anything dangerous like that. No, the bag agitated me because it was literally filled to the brim with a wide and colorful variety of toys. Now no one wants to be that parent that's known as a killjoy, where the only "toys" in their playroom are a deck of cards and a chessboard. At the same time, there's such a thing as having too much stuff. Young kids are only capable of comparing a finite number of choices: two is optimal; three is pushing it. So when they're confronted with a bag-full, their processing system short-circuits, and they have a difficult time focusing and making effective choices.

I could readily imagine the long plane ride this family (and their fellow passengers) was in for, in which the well-intentioned (but severely misguided) parents would present one option after another -- car, doll, squoosh-ball, flashcard, drum, gun, ice cream maker, underpants bomb -- in their attempt to placate their fussy child, and the kid -- like a coke addict chasing that initial high -- used up each in increasingly rapid succession. There was no doubt that a tantrum would ensue.

So what to do instead? Well, first off, obviously limit your choices to a container that will fit in the overhead bin or the seat in front of you: these are shared spaces. Second, pick things that can be used multiple times -- we all know how kids love the word "again" -- or in multiple ways: a book, a couple handfuls of Legos, a box of crayons, and a pad of paper. Third, shy away from anything that has as one of its express purposes the making of noise -- this will likely only annoy other people.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, keep the number of options to a minimum. There is no way you can solve for every situation or need your child will confront on a plane ride, and often the more problems you try to plan for, the more you create (and the more you create an expectation that you'll be the person responsible for solving every one, which only reinforces the issue). One of the express goals in traveling (and in life) is to help your child to learn to happily enjoy and partake of what is present and available. The Sky Mall magazine makes an endlessly fascinating source for invented narratives. Air sickness bags can easily be decorated and transformed into puppets (and there's one in every seat) for fun performances.

And, though I'm usually too busy writing up a column like this to take note, the stuff passing outside the plane's windows is often pretty damn cool. So stop packing as though you've just mugged Santa, and help your kid (and yourself) live where you're at, wherever in the air that might be.

next: Recession Mama's New Year's Advice
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