Hell is not other people, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously claimed. In fact, hell is other people’s children.
Especially when you’re imprisoned with them for hours on a plane, while the kids wail, shriek, yell and thrash their way around the claustrophobic confines of the cabin.
In the absence of industrial-grade ear-plugs, there’s absolutely nothing you can do – except grit your teeth, exchange pained looks with other passengers also held hostage by the little brats, and perhaps utter the odd expletive under your breath when the noise reaches jack-hammer levels. There’s no escape. You’re stuck with them until the plane lands.
On a recent flight abroad, I witnessed two children, who I’d guess to be about four and six, create absolute havoc.
The younger one continually jumped, shouted and stamped along the aisle, bouncing off people who were trying to sleep – no chance – while the older child repeatedly screamed at the top of her voice because she wanted to get off the plane.
It seemed extraordinary that such a small person could produce a roar louder than the engine of a Boeing 737, but this one did. The parents looked on wearily as if they were helpless bystanders, making barely any attempt to restrain their kids or deal with their awful behaviour.
This kind of scenario is not unusual. In his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson describes seeing a three-year-old boy trailing his parents through a crowded airport. Just like the child I encountered, this boy was “screaming violently at five-second intervals – and, more importantly, he was doing it voluntarily… he was irritating his parents and hundreds of other people to get attention”.
Peterson’s verdict? “More thoughtful parents would not have let someone they truly cared for become the object of a crowd’s contempt.”
Ouch – but it’s true.
Look, I know that parents of young children often get a rough ride, bombarded with unsolicited advice from all sides, and blamed for everything from rising obesity levels to internet addiction.
What’s more, some children have genuine behavioural issues, diagnosed medical conditions which can cause them to act up.
And maybe I have less tolerance for shrieking youngsters now that my own children are grown up.
But here’s the unspoken problem: a heck of a lot of parents simply won’t say no to their kids. And it’s causing an epidemic of disgraceful behaviour.
These parents treat their offspring like miniature adults, pint-sized kings and queens, rather than the children they are. They spend their time massaging the kids’ tyrannical little egos, deferring pathetically to their every fleeting wish, never allowing them to experience frustration or difficulty, and refusing to discipline them in case it hurts the little diddums’ feelings.
As the writer Cosmo Landesman recently observed, “once children were expected to fit themselves around the needs of grown-ups; now it’s the other way around”.
Why? Guilt might have something to do with it. If you only see your children for a short period every day because of work commitments, you might be reluctant to spend any of that quality time laying down the law.
Jordan Peterson thinks that modern parents are “simply paralysed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason”. This abandonment of responsibility has severe consequences, since parents have a vital role as the “arbiters of society”, who must teach the adults of the future how to behave and interact with one another.
The worst of it is that these spoilt kids aren’t happy, even as they run riot.
The six-year-old screaming with rage on the plane was a picture of tear-streaked misery. She looked completely bewildered, desperate and confused because nobody was taking the situation in hand and dealing with it for her. She was being allowed to run the show, when what she clearly needed, in order to feel safe and secure, was an adult, preferably one of her parents, to step in and take charge.
When the plane finally landed, I was never so glad to get off a flight. My ears, still ringing, were grateful too. But after we joined the lengthy, slow-moving queue at the car rental desk, I heard the now-familiar shriek once more. Yes, the delightful family were waiting to hire a car too.
Maybe one day, someone will be kind enough to teach that little girl that screaming when you don’t get your own way won’t get you very far in life.