Babies on Planes

I read this piece about babies on planes by Stephanie Murray at The Atlantic, as well as many negative reactions to it on social media. Murray uses the example to touch on broader questions posed by parents who bring young children into public spaces that are not exclusively used by children.

Some people think parents should do this, should not feel guilty about doing it even if their kids misbehave, and that the general public should be tolerant of this sort of age-mixing. Others think parents should not do this unless they can be certain that their kids will not misbehave.

This is how the debate tends to unfold in the discourse, but I think there is a slightly clearer way to structure the conversation. Initially, we should acknowledge the existence of three kinds of public spaces:

  1. Spaces that are only for kids (and caregivers).
  2. Spaces that are only for adults (or adult-acting kids).
  3. Spaces that are for everyone.

There does not seem to be much controversy about what spaces go into the kids-only category: playgrounds, children’s museums, trampoline parks, and so on.

There also does not seem to be much controversy about the idea that there are some spaces that go into the adults-only category, e.g. certain night life attractions like bars and strip clubs.

The conflict is thus about how big the adults-only (including kids who act like adults) category should be versus how big the all-ages category should be. Some people seem to think the all-ages category should be very small and that almost everything that is not kids-only should be adults-only (including kids who act like adults). Others take the opposite view, which is that all but a small handful of spaces that are clearly inappropriate for children should be in the all-ages category.

Personally, I count myself in the latter category. Even if you don’t count yourself in the latter category, it is hard to understand how anyone could possibly think that transportation networks — whether planes, trains, or buses — should be in the adults-only category. Transportation is one of those services that obviously has to be able to serve everyone since it is the thing that allows people to get to the places that they are going. If children can’t use transportation, then they can’t even go to the kids-only places!

Outside of the context of transportation networks, I think this conversation could be improved a bit if it were recast as being, not about children per se, but about people with intellectual disabilities. Everything that people get annoyed at little kids for doing is something adults with intellectual disabilities also do. This is because adults with intellectual disabilities and young kids suffer from the same developmental deficits.

We don’t call young children disabled because, as a concept, disability is always defined by comparison to the typical functioning of one’s peer group. A 2-year-old that is illiterate, can’t dress themselves, acts impulsively, screams, cries, and throws tantrums is not considered disabled because that’s typical of 2-year-olds, while a 25-year-old with those afflictions is usually considered disabled because that’s atypical of 25-year-olds.

But for the purposes of this particular social debate, drawing an equivalence between these two people is illuminating. Complaining that an adult with severe autism or Down Syndrome was on your plane or in a restaurant and misbehaving would be bizarre and very few people do it, especially publicly. Young kids, who have similar levels of mental and behavioral development, shouldn’t be regarded any differently.

Put simply, for any given place, if you think it is acceptable for an adult with intellectual disabilities to be there, then you should also think it is acceptable for a young child to be there. If you can tolerate the occasional disturbances caused by one, then you can tolerate the occasional disturbances caused by the other.