Care and Feeding

Flight Risk

I politely asked for a child to wear headphones with his tablet on a plane. His parents shamed him for the rest of the flight.

A child wearing headphones on a plane.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nadezhda1906/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was recently on a flight where I was seated behind a family with a toddler. I was trying to read my book, but the child was playing games and loud music on his tablet. (That “Baby Shark” song actually slaps but makes it hard to concentrate on anything else.) I leaned over and politely asked the mom, who was in front of me, if her child could use headphones or turn the volume down.

The mom told her kid, “You’re annoying people! You have to use headphones.” The dad got the kid headphones, which he used for a while before unplugging, which I totally understood, because he was a tiny toddler and toddlers like to unplug things.

The mom then literally told her son, “People are mad at you.” I felt so embarrassed and angry on this kid’s behalf! I wasn’t annoyed with him, but I did become very annoyed with his parents. They also offered to get their son apple juice, but when it turned out it wasn’t free (budget airline) they lied and said the plane was out of juice. But each parent got a $9 alcoholic drink.

Was I totally out of line to say anything about the volume of the music? I know parenting on airplanes is tough and I never get mad at parents when babies cry. I know that these people were probably stressed and tired, but I worry that by intervening I just made things worse for their kid. Should I have said something more to them? After my initial comment I stayed quiet, but perhaps I should have told their son I wasn’t mad at him. Or should I just mind my own business?

—Airplane Etiquette

Dear AE,

You seem to think that you making a polite, reasonable request is responsible for the fact that these people are shitty parents. I don’t think these two things are related. They were shitty parents before that flight and I’m sorry to report that they are probably still shitty parents even today.

It is in no way your fault that they decided to shame this child, tell him people are mad at him, and lie to him about the juice. You are perfectly within your rights to kindly and politely ask any parents if it’s possible for their child to use headphones as long as you don’t take an unnecessarily accusatory tone. (Of course, it should be common sense to turn down the volume, but traveling with a toddler is a whole thing and sometimes there is just so much stuff happening that you just forget about something like that until someone reminds you. Good parents are grateful for a polite reminder.)

So you didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s definitely not your fault that this family responded to your reasonable request as they did. However, in the future, a more sensible route might be to travel with your own headphones and earplugs. If you want quiet in a shared and enclosed space, that is just a lot easier, logistically, than trying to get all of your fellow travelers to comply.