My father-in-law has a rule: “No flying with children under 5”. He was a pilot, so he should know. But, he doesn’t like to fly now, so the only way for Zachary to spend time with his grandparents is for us to make the three-hour flight to Washington every summer.
If you’ve never flown alone with a toddler, just imagine trying to keep a child with the energy of a labrador puppy confined to a 2ft. by 2ft. seat for three hours. Now, pretend that this “puppy” can chuck crayons 12 feet in front of him. And he can demand to go “caca” repeatedly at the top of his lungs during a particularly bumpy spell of turbulence. Put all that together, and suddenly my father-in-law’s rule doesn’t seem so draconian.
But despite his advice, there we were, squeezed in like sardines in a can, hurtling through the air at 500mph. I had prepared several activities to keep Zachary engaged: stickers, crayons, books, snacks. I doled each item out like sips of water in a desert, trying to make the entertainment last for the duration of the flight.
When you’re stuck on an airplane for several hours, you’ll do anything to keep your child occupied. Watching Zach engage with the items I provided, I quickly realized that if I didn’t interfere at all, Zachary would stick with each activity a lot longer than if I set a goal (such as, “Let’s draw a dog!”)
He seemed to have his own goals, and some of them seemed more developmental than practical. He would take his time opening the box of crayons, remove them one by one, say what color they were, and then put them all back facing the same direction. He’d spend several minutes opening and closing the food containers, peeling his boiled eggs, or trying to open his granola bar. He didn’t get frustrated once, and he eventually managed to do everything he set out to do.
He didn’t need tons of activities, and he didn’t need me directing his work or giving him ideas on what to do. He just needed me to butt out, so that he could move at the natural pace toddlers adopt when they’re focused on their work and nobody’s pressuring them.
It struck me that, in our fast-paced world, even the most well-intentioned parents do things for their children that the little ones can – and should – do for themselves. Look, I know the feeling of frustration when everyone’s late for school or work and your toddler is trying to put on his socks by himself. There are times when we just need to provide some help to speed up the process and just Get. On. With. It.
But what if, once a week, we instituted an “airplane day”? Heck, even an “airplane hour”. A time where you and your toddler don’t have to be anywhere or do anything. A time when she can take 20 minutes to put on her underwear by herself; where she can pull the dishwasher rack in and out for as long as she wants; where she can browse through your sewing basket and study all of the interesting buttons and threads you keep there.
And what can you do during this time? Slow down. Observe without hovering. Notice what you may have missed before: that your little one is an extremely capable and self-reliant human being who has her own interests and moves at her own pace.
“Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”
– Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family