December 19, 2013

At airports and on flights, helicopter parents reveal their amoral familism

Amoral familism -- the "us first" guiding principle for public interactions, i.e. across families, that Edward Banfield blamed for the lack of communal cooperation in Southern Italy. It has reared its head in a more developed country in a more advanced age, in the form of helicopter parenting.

It's hard to get a feel for how antagonistic the helicopter parents feel toward public spaces and community because we so rarely get to see them in action. They lock their kids inside the house all day every day, and cocoon themselves in order to always be keeping an eye on the baby (who's now in ninth grade).

Typically what you get are signs of absence -- of children playing out in the front yard or riding their bikes around the neighborhood, of trick-or-treaters on Halloween, of windows with the blinds open, and so on. Only when you stop and think about it does it hit you how suspicious and hostile parents are these days toward the broader community and its public spaces.

But they can't cocoon forever. Sometimes they're forced to spend a good amount of time with us Outside Influences, like at the airport, and the results are revealing. If they just didn't care one way or the other about community members, then they would get along with us as well as we do with one another. Yet they always bring an "under siege" mentality with them, and struggle to commandeer our public spaces because Baby On Board.

It starts at the airport gate, where the family has brought not only the luggage that everyone else does, but has set up camp with blankets, pillows, and other fort-building materials. Except they don't let their kids share in the fun of building a fort -- the stuff is just there to claim territory and signal to everybody that the family is on a camping trip. Why -- is the airport like the hostile wilderness? In the helicopter parent's mind, yes.

It's also an attempt to make us give them special treatment -- say, by not going over to pinch the ear of their shrieking defiant brat -- by saying, "Hey guys, have mercy on us -- we're a family on a trip, camping out like Gypsies. You wouldn't want to be in our position, trust me, so go easy on us."

How about we do things the way they were done when you were a child? Back in the '80s, there was none of this delirious glorification of nuclear families battling society in public spaces. We had to behave ourselves in public in those days. And our parents immediately corrected us if we acted out: we were not at home, and our bratty behavior would bother an entire group of folks who had not invited us to show up there acting all bratty.

Why should we give a pass to all this disruptive and disrespectful behavior by children, just because parents feel embarrassed to have to enforce discipline? That's your tough luck. Worse, if one of us tried to intervene on the wimpy parent's behalf, he wouldn't thank us, like "Man, I feel too awful doing this to my own kid, but thank God there's somebody here to do it for me." No, they're all: "How dare you tell me how to raise my kids?!" bla bla bla. They get indignant because we're pointing out how dysfunctional their wimpy parenting has shown itself to be.

By the way, these visits I'm drawing on have all been in more or less all-white airports, so please don't rationalize this as whites understandably building bunkers to keep the darkies away. It is particular nuclear families vs. everybody outside that family. It's not even like the nuclear families team up with one another at the airport, against us non-family-represented travelers, as though it were the old "smoking section" of a public restaurant. It's the members of family A vs. everyone not related to family A.

It only gets worse on the plane. Here is an old post where I searched the NYT and popular culture for references to babies shrieking on planes. A regular stream of articles begins only in 2004. This shows that, while there may have always been a non-zero chance of boarding a flight with a crying baby, it's gotten worse enough in the 21st century that it's a common complaint.

And again we see the same refusal to discipline or punish their children who are screaming bloody murder because Mommy won't let them watch a movie, who are whining on and on about all lesser displeasures, and who are kicking the seat of the poor bastard in front of them. The spawn of helicopter parents pollute public places in a way that we did not when we were little, because we would've gotten smacked by our parents or glared at by angry strangers. Today if you send an angry glare toward some pollution-spewing brat, the parents treat you like you just broke open his skull with a club stuck full of rusty nails.

Then there's that whole showdown between the family who can't find seats together vs. all of us heartless monsters who won't immediately give up our seat. That's not enough -- they have to recruit the head stewardess to their side, who proceeds to shame us with a sob story about how "If none of you offer to give up your seats, this innocent family will be torn apart." Like they're one of those refugee families in some squalid war-torn shithole in Central America.

Get a grip, lady -- the kid is 5 years old, and can handle separating from his mommy for a couple hours in the same vehicle, from which no wandering or escape is possible. Shoot, I thought that was fun when that happened to me at a young age -- so long, Mom, I'll be sure to write from row 27! Exploring the social world on your own builds character in young people. Something as simple as occasionally sitting next to strangers rather than parents on a plane -- one time may not do much, but add it up over all such episodes, in all areas of life.

And if the kid is so young that he really is dependent on the mother, he's probably small enough to qualify as a riding-on-her-lap passenger. It's rarely a mother with a newborn in a teeny-tiny travel seat, but one who's 4, 5, or 6 years old.

It's not that they're making the plea at all, but how they expect special treatment above the rest of us, and resent us if we don't drop everything we're doing and comply with their wishes. Like if a married couple wants to sit together, and they ask if we'd mind switching seats -- that's fine, although here they understand it's a roll of the dice. If it doesn't pan out, they'll be put out, but they won't feel like the entire group of passengers is violating some sacred code. And they don't phrase their pitch as though if we don't comply, it's tantamount to imposing divorce on them.

In all of these examples, the parents show a fundamental unwillingness to dampen the 100% fulfillment of the nuclear family's wishes in order to create and maintain more enjoyable public spaces for everyone. The most basic requirement of public behavior is that we temper our desire to do whatever we please when others are affected. Otherwise we're back to Southern Italy, where the public sphere is over-run by clans guided by amoral familism.

Toddlers are not things to be glorified and respected -- they are supposed to grow up, act like the rest of us, and treat others with respect. Not "the same respect that they would like for themselves," as that assumes empathy on the part of a 4 year-old. They should treat people with respect, even though they don't get it, because to do otherwise is allowing pollution of public places.

This was all perfectly normal in the 1970s and '80s, when today's parents of toddlers were toddlers themselves, so there's no reason to accept it today. I think the easiest way to start "nudging" the society away from this equilibrium state of normless chaos is to begin making visibly angry faces at children when they're polluting our public spaces. It sends a vivid reminder that this isn't their room or their home, that everyone else has a say here too. And that, unlike your wimpy parents, we aren't going to roll over and let you disrupt the grown-ups' world at zero cost.


  1. Two things:

    First, I've been hearing people complain about screaming children on airplanes since I was a small child myself. (Born in 1968 to put a timeline on it.) I don't know why all the stories only started in the NYT in 2004, but it was a long-held complaint of every flier I knew since the early 1970s, when I first heard of it personally. (I was never that screaming child for two reasons: My mother was too frightening, and flying was too damned exciting to do anything but concentrate HARD on everything that was happening around me.)

    Second, as a teen in the 1980s, small children weren't all that much better behaved then than they are now. The parents were better behaved then, though. Both the helicopter parenting and the bratty child thing got an earlier start than you seem to believe. It started in the 1970s (I blame Steven Spielberg), grew steadily as a parenting style throughout the 1980s, and reached full flower in the 1990s.

    I've also got a first-hand account as the parent of a small child why parents CAN'T enforce discipline these days as parents did pre-1980. But I don't have time to write that one up right now. Hopefully I can get that in later tonight.

  2. There were more children out and about unsupervised during the '80s than the '70s. Helicopter parenting was at a minimum. So was the no-spanking policy.

    I remember into about 1993 or '94, getting sent home from my best friend's house when his mother or father was about to lay into him -- verbally for sure, and probably physically as well. Bad enough of a punishment, at any rate, that they didn't want someone outside the family to have to witness it.

    It isn't until 1989 that pop culture starts to feature all sorts of misbehaving children -- the movie Parenthood, Bart Simpson, and in 1990 the movie Problem Child.

    I went through old issues of Parents magazine and found a similar shift in the very late '80s toward helicopter parenting in the advice columns, though most for younger children (the Millennials).

    Thus, helicopter parenting was just another aspect of the broader cocooning trend that began in the very late '80s and early '90s.

  3. You also have to distinguish between kids behaving toward parents vs. the general public.

    Kids were definitely more self-assertive in the '80s, and that led to more confrontation against their parents.

    But out in public, they knew not to step on strangers' toes. We have home videos from birthdays at McDonalds when I was 5 (1985), and there were about a dozen of us there. I was surprised how well behaved we were -- talking to each other and having fun, but never shouting, whining, crying, or treating the McDonalds like it was our own private romping room.

    There are videos like that on YouTube, birthday parties at the bowling alley (that was a popular thing around 1990). Again, the kids are boisterous and excited, but not rude, disrespectful, or presumptuous about whose place the bowling alley is.

  4. Or mothers who think their kids give them the right to bully other people.



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