(CNN) — The child was screaming and out of control as he and his mother boarded the aircraft.
That much psychologist and parenting expert Kevin Leman remembers well.
It could have been another tantrum-filled flight from hell. But Leman says a quick-thinking flight attendant could see what was about to unfold. She got the captain’s attention and he ordered the family off the aircraft before they could get to their seats.
“The parent was incapable of controlling the kid, and nothing was going to help in that kind of situation,” says Leman, the author of several parenting books, including “Parenting Your Powerful Child,” and father of five grown children.
Leman, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, and travels constantly for speaking engagements, says he sees a child acting out on his flight at least once a week. If you don’t set limits on the ground, he says, you won’t be able to set them inside a narrow metal tube at 35,000 feet.
“The parent you are in the ground is the parent you’re going to be on the airplane,” says Leman. “Do you have a game plan? If you do, you’re going to have a kid who will sit in an airplane, entertain himself and not be a pain to other customers on the plane.”
Haunted by experiences and tales of children behaving badly in flight, many travelers have pretty strong — and sometimes visceral — feelings about sharing space with young globetrotters. And what are the wee ones really getting out of such travel? Aren’t their parents going to suffer for bringing them long after the earsplitting cries leave the confines of the airplane?
Can young children benefit from travel?
Traveling parents tell CNN those meltdown moments do not represent the entirety of their experiences. Navigating airport security and learning about different cultures practically since birth, many well-traveled children have better airplane manners and more frequent flier miles than some adults.
“I think my daughter benefits from seeing there’s a world beyond Baltimore and that there are all different types of people,” says aviation blogger Benet Wilson, who’s taken her 8-year-old daughter on airplanes since she was 10 days old.
Almira Coronado of Daly City, California, agrees. “Traveling enables people to be more open-minded, you get out of your comfort zone, experience unique things, meet different people, hear/speak a different language,” writes Coronado, owner of a travel agency. “It broadens the mind.”
By taking their daughter to foreign countries since she was just a few months old, Coronado and her husband see Michelle, now age 7, developing a more global point of view. “She’ll have a better appreciation of what makes each place and each people unique.”
When can a child fly?
We know some of you will not bend on wanting child-free flights, resorts and lives. You remain convinced that kids will never be bearable as fellow travelers. That’s OK.
But you should know that there’s just no blanket rule for when a child is old enough to be on the move. Sorry, baby haters. Some children are easygoing and can travel well at any age, and others are more temperamental and cannot.
The temperament of the child and the parent are key in deciding if a child is ready to travel or not, says Yale Parenting Center director Alan Kazdin, a Yale University psychology professor and author of “The Everyday Parenting Toolkit.”
A mellow, organized parent can handle changes in flight plans and food and can teach those strategies to his or her child. The parent who gets frantic easily may not go with the flow when faced with travel delays, jet lag or even the “wrong” kind of chicken nuggets. “And that predisposition will be passed on to your child,” says Kazdin.
Do young children benefit from travel?
There are those parents who’ve taught their children to behave in changing situations and who can adapt when weather, flights and different languages affect their plans. And they tell stories of trips abroad that benefited both parents and children.
Coronado thinks her daughter benefits from learning about new places and cultures before they travel, then seeing the reality. Before a 2012 trip to see family in Italy, Coronado borrowed books from the library to teach her daughter about the places they planned to see. That got Michelle, then age 5, excited about the trip.
Before a 2010 trip to the Philippines, Coronado told her daughter that she could ask her parents about anything she saw that she didn’t understand.
“She can whisper her question to us and we’ll try our best to answer her question,” writes Coronado. When Michelle saw a homeless girl begging on the street, it turned into a (quiet) conversation about poverty, hunger and having a safe place to call home.
Parents can benefit as well. Scott Ribich and his wife took their two sons, ages 3 and 1, to Machu Picchu to mark their 10-year anniversary. The Fort Wayne, Indiana, couple researched getting young children to adapt to high elevations in Cuzco, and they dealt with a little altitude sickness on the second day of the trip.
There were also unexpected rewards.
“Traveling with young children and spending time on the playgrounds with the local children and meeting the kids and their families is something you don’t normally get to do when you are just two adults traveling somewhere and gives you a completely different perspective.”
Choose your travel wisely
Not convinced and still want to avoid those kid-filled flights? That’s why Leman schedules his business trips early in the day — and not during school breaks. But if he’s traveling with younger children, he schedules those trips later in the day.
“I don’t want to wake a 4-year-old at 4 a.m. to get on a 6 a.m. flight to see Grandma,” he says. “Some of these problems we create are brought on by ourselves.”
Better yet, drive (if you can). Before Leman had sold a lot of books, he’d pile all five children in the back of the station wagon for the annual summer drive from Arizona to New York.
Although he says it’s not his normal parenting style, there would be rewards at the end of each driving day for the children who didn’t get three strikes. “I’m not a reward-punishment person but if you’re trapped in a car or cylinder at 35,000 feet for three hours, I’ll do anything to keep those kids in check,” he says. (As long as it works.)
Be savvy about your travel choices
At a family-friendly resort or on a Disney cruise, there will be children. That’s what child-free travel blogger Christina Saull and her husband assume.
Yes, of course Saull thinks parents should set a good example for their children and be responsible parents while traveling. But child-free travelers have a job to do, too. “I think it’s equally my responsibility to know what kind of trip I’m planning,” she writes.
“If I want a vacation 100% without kids around, I need to go to an adults-only resort. If I’m going on a cruise or to Florida during spring break, I know there are going to be kids there — shame on me for expecting different.”
Thank the good parents
You don’t hear from all children on a flight because some of their parents are doing the right thing. Lee Huffman and his wife took their then-2-year-old son to Spain last May, and the Anaheim Hills, California, couple were prepared, as always.
“We keep him occupied as much as possible while flying with iPad videos, coloring books, reading to him, Duplo blocks for him to build, and now puzzles,” writes Huffman.
True, the flying was not always so smooth. Huffman admits to toddler meltdowns when the iPad had to be shut down during takeoff and landing before the new rules. “We were so happy when the airlines started to allow iPads to remain on during takeoff and landing,” he writes.
Travel blogger Saull likes to recognize those parents who are trying. “I love well-behaved kids on planes and always compliment parents whose kids are well-behaved on my flight,” she writes.
“I also always compliment parents whose kids might be a bit restless or fussy, but the parents are clearly trying. Sometimes it’s hard to sit still for two hours in a metal tube — even for adults!”
Age is no barrier to tantrums
It can be hard for adults to behave as well. Just ask your flight attendant.
When you’re sitting there in your middle seat judging the parents unable to calm their toddlers, make sure to take notes on the adult passengers.
Which businesspeople huffed down the aisle because they didn’t get free upgrades to first class? Which late-boarding tourists tried to push their suitcases into already-filled overhead bins? Who got up to go to the bathroom as soon as the flight attendants started beverage service? Who demanded a meal in coach on a two-hour flight when meals haven’t been served in coach in decades?
As several parents point out, many children behave better than some adult travelers. “I’ve seen adults AND kids throw the wildest tantrums in airports regardless of age,” writes Doug Simonton of Atlanta.
Simonton waited until his daughter was 9 years old, seven years ago, to take her to Washington and New York. Why? Because that’s how old he was when he took a similar trip many years ago. “I figured she’d appreciate it as much as I did. And she did.”
Asked if he would do anything differently, he said he would have built in more rest time for himself.
His daughter was very well-behaved, he said, but that’s how she’s always been. “Shannon has always had a great temperament,” he writes. “I never had to do anything to make her behave. … She was and is quite mature for her age.”
Sounds like a dad who knows his daughter.
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