Trapped with abusive parent in airplane for five hours!

Alright, it’s maybe not the worst situation in the world, but we just got back from two weeks in Hawaii on holiday and I experienced a distressing situation on the five hour flight back from the Big Island to San Francisco (where we overnighted): an abusive parent and her child in my row of the plane.
As is common with airlines, we booked months in advance but couldn’t get our five seats together, so we had three seats in one row, one seat immediately ahead of it, and one seat two rows ahead of that. Not so good when we’re traveling with the kids, needless to say, but since K-‘s now two, we have to buy her a seat too.
We decided that we’d arrange it so that Linda and all three kids were squished into the three-seat row (with the baby on her lap to hopefully sleep) and I’d be in the row immediately ahead.
But when we were all trying to settle into our seats, I was joined by a heavyset native Hawaiian woman and her five year old (I’m guessing) daughter. Her daughter promptly stood on the chair to look over and meet our kids and the Mom…


The girl’s Mom smacked her in the back and told her brusquely to get off the chair and “siddown”.
All of a sudden five hours of sitting in the same row as these two people seemed unimaginably long and I moved up to the seat two rows further ahead for takeoff and the inevitable bouncing up to cruising altitude, at which point I came back and quietly explained to Linda what had happened.
The situation was quite difficult but the woman was certainly happy to take over all three seats with the sudden bounty that we’d given her by ceding our paid seat for the duration of the flight (without a thank you, as you might guess).
On the other hand, I certainly wasn’t going to have any of my kids sitting next to her and while the daughter seemed quite delightful (and not a bit cowed by her stressed out and abusive mother) I just felt like in the tiny little tin can of a plane, staying apart was far more sensible than getting involved.
Fortunately and through some amazing serendipity, I ended up sitting next to two young boys (11 and 9) whose father was in a pair of window seats, having bought two seats so he could spread out his work while on the flight.
With extraordinary generosity, he gave up his two seats for Linda and K-, letting the two of them cuddle and read books for an hour or two, until we got uncomfortable and gave the seat back to him.
It was a perfect break in the tedium of the five hour flight and even though the first and last hours were spent with four in a three-seat row (well, I spent a lot of time walking around in the plane with K-, so it might not quite have been hours of laptime after all) we survived and made it to SFO in good spirits, and after a quick bite in the airport restaurant, got to our hotel and had a great night sleep before the last, much shorter (and better situated!) leg of our trip.
But I’m still a bit troubled: what could I have done in that situation? I hate seeing abusive parents and the mom hit her daughter a couple of times during the flight and especially when everyone was impatiently jostling to get off the plane when we’d landed. When she first hit the girl, she looked defiantly at both Linda and I (at least, I thought so), as if to say “what are you going to do about it, haole?”
So I did nothing.
sigh.
What would you have done in that situation and how have you handled that sort of thing when trapped on a plane, bus or other narrow confines?
Oh, and, yes, Hawaii was wonderful. We stayed in a rented condo close to the Hilton Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Kona side of the Big Island. Two weeks of playing at the beach, walking on the petroglyph trails, teaching the kids Yahtzee and backgammon, and generally getting very rested, hurray!

13 comments on “Trapped with abusive parent in airplane for five hours!

  1. Aloha Dave, welcome home! 😉
    If it’s not stressful enough to be in flight with one’s family travelling long hours – which seems like eternity for children – then having to deal with awkward and uncomfortable situations like the one you just experienced, is just exhausting.
    I would’ve done the same thing – distanced my family from a situation like this. It’s because I don’t have a prior relationship, or haven’t created one yet, of commonality, respect, trust – that makes it extremely difficult to reason or advise another – let alone on the topic of parenting – which is so subjective.
    What makes my bias towards attachment parenting ‘right’ in this situation, compared to this lady’s parenting style (which she most probably grew up with and knew no other parenting style)? Like the quote, which I don’t fully agree, “Ignorance is bliss”.
    It’s a lose-lose situation regardless. Unless the abuse was ‘life-death’, yours or my advice, recommendation, suggestions would fall to deaf ears, or worse, create a scene that would be embarrassing on the flight.
    The only thing I might do before moving my family to another row of seats as far away as possible, is to non-chalantly and cheerfully letting the mom know that its alright as my children would welcome the ‘visitor’. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, then I would move if the abuse got unbearable.

  2. I’m much more of an in your face person and that is why this is going to sound a little harsh…
    I would’ve “mothered” her and said “Ahem, Excuse me but we don’t hit each other on this plane”.
    I dare her to pick a fight with me – who do you think would’ve gotten kicked off the plane first?
    I think that it’s important for my daughter to see me stand up for people who can’t. If she learns to ignore abuse by watching my example then I am failing.

  3. We were at vacation resort that had an indoor water play place. We were trying to get our things together and make the 3 hour drive back home after a long weekend. My daughter went running into the “wet” bathroom…the floor was sopping wet. Just as I told her not to run because she might slip, she slips and falls. The whole front of her dress was wet, her legs, her arms and hands, and the worse part is heaven only knows what else she picked up from the floor….hair, wet tp…gross. So I helped her up and went to the showers to wash her off. Slightly annoyed because this was the 40th slight delay we had encountered in the 45 minutes we’ve been trying to leave. So I say to her: “I was trying to tell you don’t run. Do you remember me telling you we’re going into the bathroom, don’t run because it’s wet?” I bend to wash her off and this woman comes up to me and lays into me for treating my child badly. I was floored….I haden’t done anything! She was standing there telling me I’m the type of person who wants people to feel sorry for them and she actually feels sorry for my children! I could not believe it, and I literally ended up telling her how dare she and to go back to her family and leave me alone. After a few moments of her talking and me ignoring her she finally left. I was stunned. Ever since that time I don’t say anything to parents that are behaving badly. What I do now is I try to involve the child in whatever my children are doing. Or I give the little one a snack to keep busy. I generally try to treat the child with respect and speak calmly and softly to her. Most of the time the mother can tell she was being a tad rough and lightens up on it. I think of it this way. My path and this childs crossed for a brief moment in time, I want to make that moment as wonderful for this child as possible because I will never see this child again and I’m sure their going to have a less than peaceful life. If I can make 5 hours of it safe and loving, then I try to do so. Might be too bleeding heart, but I have been on the other side and have regretted not being nice in this situation. The main reasons I do it is it softens mom to their child. Sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time it does. They see a stranger treating their kid well and they feel like a heel. Sometimes in a bad situation there is a little silver lining…..I like to be that lining to a child that’s not being treated good.
    And you can acomplish two things at once…you let mom know the behavior is not acceptable without offending her and causing a scene. What parent would get mad if your kids played with their kid? Keeps kid busy and safe and gives mom time to think about her behavior. And then too I might just throw in there a comment about knowing how hard it is to be alone with a rambunctious little one…and then casually mention the lady in the Wal-mart parking lot that was filmed hitting her daughter….it’s not condemning, but it does make people think about their behavior.

  4. First, I’m wondering why I always have to do math before I post a message? But I digress… I have used a couple of methods as aforementioned. I have often distanced myself and my child because it was just so horrid and I’ve (when I cannot get distance) also tried to set the absolute best example that I can. Even more extreme than normal, louder than normal. Perhaps giving my child the right to do something that the other child cannot and explaining outloud just why it is allowed. Or maybe I would “discipline” my child loud enough for the other person to hear in a very calm way (a la PET if you know it).

  5. Well, I have never posted anything before, and a few short minutes ago read what “attachment parenting” is according to this web site. I am not sure if my parenting style would fit into this category. I have two babies, a boy who is 20 months old, and a girl who is 10 months old. I sleep with them, and I breastfeed. I stay at home with them, and I don’t yell or hit my children.
    Ok, here is what I wanted to say about Dave’s story: I understand your deep convictions to raise you child with love, and how witnessing that woman hitting her child stirred up emotions deep with in your being, but I would never in a million years correct someone’s parenting. I think that it is incredibly rude to offer up unsolicited advice to parents who discipline their kids in public. If this were a truly “abusive” parent then you should have called the authorities and had the child removed from that woman’s care.
    I want to erg you to not use such a strong word to describe spanking. A word that is thrown around losses meaning. There are children go unloved, beaten, raped and starved every single day around the globe. Take this passion you have for being a child advocate and put it to use. Educate yourself about the horrors of child sex trafficking in the United States and think about that next time you are ready to correct an old woman for raising her child in a manor that doesn’t please you.

  6. I certainly understand your frustration. But by not saying anything you probably did the right things.
    Spanking a child in public is in poor taste, and makes everyone uncomfortable. However, I would not qualify a swat every now and again as abuse. True abuse happens far too often and should be reported if noticed (example: pouring boiling water on a child, beating to the point of broken bones and severe bruising, or God forbid sex trafficking). Too often well meaning people report suspected abuse (a swat now and again) and social services becomes so clogged that they can’t deal with the real abuse.
    So as uncomfortable as it was I think you did the right thing and simply dealt with it by protecting your children from exposure.

  7. Im going to have to disagree with the simple do nothing attitude. I’ve watched my father abuse me and my family for years and every time it hurts. I literally want to respond violently to his actions because of how many times I’ve had to deal with it. He’s a narcissistic egomaniacal alchoholic and drug abuser.
    My mother never helped or resisted because she is co-dependant which is a horrible mental sickness. I have stood up to him myself, but just because he doesn’t change doesn’t mean I should do nothing.
    People shy away from conflict way to much in this society. In my opinion, in cases where there is someone else treating someone abusively, at least, ask them what the hell they are doing. In cases where it may just be an excessive form of discipline, ask them why they hit their kids in such a manner and if the kid really deserved that.
    Asking them questions will put them on the defensive and hopefully make them think about what they are doing which is much better than them getting away with the ‘ignorance’ or ‘that’s just how I am’ excuse.
    Expressing that you don’t approve of their behavior at the very least helps the person being abused or other witnesses to the abuse.
    And I disagree about using worldy authorities in every abuse case, because that usually doesn’t make things any better and instead creates more mess. Most abuse consists of psychological lashing outs of anger, neglect, and belittlement. It is a spiritual matter and the supreme spritual authority is who we should consult for help.

  8. I was once that child who was hit and yelled at in public. And as an adult, I don’t hesitate to take action when I see a child being treated poorly. It may be as simple as reporting it to a supermarket manager, but to stand by and watch a child be abused is something I cannot do. If a parent will do that to them in public, then what will they do to the child in private when no one is looking?
    I once heard a parent in a store tell a child that if he didn’t behave that the police were gonna come and get him. I simply walked up to the parent and said, “What a horrible thing to tell a child” and walked off. The parent’s jaw just dropped to the floor, and she looked very ashamed. Of course, I’m a woman who’s 6 feet tall, so I’m guessing I can be a little intimidating anyway.
    Children are fragile, both physically and emotionally. If their parents don’t treat them well, then it’s up to the rest of us to take the sticks out of our butts and do something about it. As someone who is 35 and has PTSD from years of child abuse, I always wanted someone to stop my mother from hitting me. Even when she did it 3 feet away from them. But they never did. They just thought it was a “family matter” or an issue of perogative.
    You may save a child’s life or a future adult’s sanity by taking action.

  9. You were there for a reason and it’s your responsibility to speak up. Don’t ignore your instinct or better jusgment. It would be wrong to look the other way. I agree, if someone hurts their child in public, one can only imagine what they do in private. It’s one thing to quietly scold a child but to smack them for looking over a seat or to belittle them in public, is another thing entirely. The “parent” in this instance is the one who is “bad” and out of line. I think it should be brought to their attention that they are “going too far” in “punishing” their child. Even if it embarrasses them – didn’t they just do that to their child? Also, if you are too uncomfortable to say it directly, bring it to someone elses’s attention in front of them but they need to be aware their actions are not going unnoticed. Next time they may think before they act.

  10. I just found this blog tonight, but have really enjoyed reading various posts.
    We don’t all choose to raise our children the same way and while some “differences” are outright violations of ethical and legal standards, others are more a matter of different parenting philosophies. There is a also a difference between a swat and a bludgeoning.
    Personally, from what you described, I wouldn’t classify the woman’s behavior toward her child as abuse.
    My parent’s disciplined me with bare-bottom spanking and smacks to the face. Did I like it? No. Would I do it to my own child? No. Would I classify my parents as abusive? No. You may disagree with me, but to me, the blame lies in the intent. My parents raised me with the best tools they had available to them in the manner they thought was right.
    Put it this way, I read your post about co-sleeping which is to you a healthy and natural component of your parenting philosophy. There are those out there, perhaps even including the “abusive” parent you encountered on the plane who would view that practice with suspicion and be dialing the authorities to report you at the same time that you were reporting them.
    If you ask others to respect your right to raise your children as you see fit, I believe it’s important to allow them the same courtesy.

  11. Just found this blog and I appreciate your words. There’s so much violence against kids who are completely unprepared to protect themselves. It’s hard to know what to do when you see it.
    I have to ask, though. Is there some specific reason you mentioned that the mom was “heavyset”? I mean, she didn’t sit on the child, did she? And why did you mention that she was apparently native Hawaiian? I didn’t see any specific reason for this information, either.
    If the kid is five, Mom is bigger than she is and threatening, no matter how “heavyset” she might be, or what Mom’s origin is.
    Don’t cloud your message of love. I assume you’re not a racist, and you don’t hate fat people. But think about it. If the Mom was white, and of average proportion, would you have mentioned that? Or just left it off because those are characteristics of a generic person for you?
    Thanks for listening and keep up the good work.

  12. I gotta ask, do you read Harry Potter and say “why did J. K. Rowling mention that Harry wears glasses? Why did she describe his cousin Dudley as overweight? Why would Dumbledore have white hair?”
    I am a writer, I described my experience. If you take issue with my writing, perhaps you should just move along rather than projecting your own issues into my descriptive narrative?

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