Brett Berk: Parents, not kids, need to learn the best way to make it through a long plane ride.
In my job as consultant to some of the world's biggest producers of toys, media and consumer products for kids and families, I travel by plane quite often. Aside from racking up the frequent-flier miles, this provides me with many opportunities to witness the kinds of hideous errors that occur when parents and small children are stuck in a tightly enclosed space and placed under immense pressure (literally!) for hours on end.
One such glorious example happened in the row behind me as I was heading back from North Carolina the other day. Now, I want to state right off that this isn't going to be a story in which I complain about the airborne behavior of an unruly toddler. I'm an expert in child development, and I understand that kids and planes often, and inherently, catalyze a reaction. This is why God (a.k.a. Steve Jobs) created the iPod. (You don't like the noise? Choose some of your own.) No, it was something a parent did that ignited my fury.
About two-thirds of the way through the flight, this woman's 4-year-old began getting a bit (understandably) stir-crazy. The seatbelt light was off and the ride was smooth, but instead of solving the problem by taking the tyke for a little stroll up and down the aisle, or studying the global and airport maps in the in-flight magazine, or creating an air-sickness-bag puppet (make sure it's empty first), or flipping through the endlessly entertaining pages of Sky Mall, this brilliant mom made a threat. "Randy," she said, "you better sit down in your seat and calm down right now, or I'm going to push this button [the flight attendant call button] and have them take you away. I'll say, 'Randy's misbehaving. Take him away.'"
Now, we all say stupid things under stress -- things we wish we could take back. But that shouldn't stop me from analyzing this particular nugget from a purely instructive standpoint. I've already mentioned a few ways of reeling in an unruly plane-bound child, ones that utilize the materials provided in the seat pocket. But there are plenty of other options whose required materials are slim and light enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you: drawing, reading, making books, creating travelogue collages, watching "Finding Nemo" for the 21,000th time on your portable DVD player ....
While free and compact, making threats upon which you are incapable of following through is never advisable. Why? Well, first, it makes you sound like a desperate idiot to anyone who happens to be within earshot. Second, it's a fabrication, and aside from the fact that lying to your kid only begets trouble -- and the need for additional lies -- we all know that only crazy people invent excuses for why things happen (e.g., "The aliens told me to"). Finally, and most importantly, when you create ultimatums which you don't plan to -- or can't -- enact, you completely undermine your authority as a parent and a disciplinarian. And if you toss that out the emergency exit at the first sign of chop, what do you expect to carry you through the turbulence of the toddler, tween and teen years?
Real discipline involves making real rules -- making them real clear in advance, and really following through on them when they're transgressed. Anything else is just an order for circling the airspace (at best) or an eventual crash-landing (at worst).