The New American Dream? Buying Freedom From Irritation.

When you’ve been covering a topic for a while, you see the same story lines pop up over and over. On the parenting beat, the dilemma of babies crying on airplanes is evergreen and always divisive. In a few cases, harried parents have been so concerned about being shamed for the mundane act of taking a baby on a plane that they’ve resorted to handing out goody bags in the hopes of preemptively mollifying fellow passengers.

The latest entry in this debate is by the writer Danielle Braff for The Times, specifically about babies flying first class. In it, one irate passenger who appears to think babies should be relegated to steerage said, “First class is a premium space where passengers pay extra for added comfort and relaxation. The presence of a baby, with their potential crying and fussing, would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere and ruin the experience for other passengers.”

It’s not an unusual view. As Braff explains:

I wasn’t surprised to read this, since it seems that there’s a growing intolerance in America for children occupying, and being themselves, in public spaces. Though that attitude is present elsewhere in the West, it seems particularly widespread here. Over the years, I’ve spoken to lots of parents who’ve raised children both in America and in other countries, and quite a few have remarked on how parenting elsewhere is easier, because they’re not constantly anxious about getting side-eyed for their kids’ completely normal — kidlike — public behavior.

In April, when I interviewed Christine Gross-Loh, the author of “Parenting Without Borders,” about her experience raising children in both the United States and Japan, she said she felt people were less “judgy” in Japan: “There’s a lot more scrutinizing of your parental choices here” in America.

Dan Kois, the author of “How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together,” said over email that although his kids were way beyond the baby stage when they spent a year in New Zealand, Costa Rica and the Netherlands, “It is true that basically every country on earth is more prepared to welcome children into public spaces and more accepting of their foibles than America is.” Despite the numbers Braff compiled about airborne babyphobes, Kois thinks most adults “range from very understanding and forgiving of babies on flights to, at worst, neutrally tolerant.” (His take: All babies should fly first class.)

Still, I see comments from people going beyond just the first class complaint and arguing that babies and young children should be cordoned off in their own area of a plane or not allowed on commercial flights, period. (Example: “Maybe there needs to be a child section at the back of each plane, behind a bulkhead or divider, where the doting parents can sit with their overindulged precious cargos and enjoy the nonstop shrieking and the stench of filthy diapers. The rest of us deserve peace and quiet.”) I want to remind these folks that babies are, you know, people, and have the same right to public space that they do.

After scrolling through the broadsides of these Bitter Bessies, I had a breakthrough: I started thinking that the first-class babies lament isn’t about the babies per se; it’s about feeling entitled to freedom from irritation because you paid the price of an airline ticket.

I was reminded of a bit from the comedian Dan Soder in his 2019 HBO special, “Son of a Gary.” Soder doesn’t have kids, but talks about traveling 25-30 weeks a year and hearing a lot of screaming babies on planes. He doesn’t get mad at the babies or their parents, because he’s not a monster and he has basic empathy: “Have you seen the parents of a screaming baby on an airplane?” he asks the crowd. “They are not into it!”

He goes on to say that the people who complain about screaming babies on airplanes are part of a “customer service generation” that has squatted on the original idea of the American dream: “You know that one that’s like, ‘I’m going to work hard, save up my money and give my kids a better life.’” That’s gone, he says. “The new American dream is like, ‘I spent a little bit of money on a product.’” If anything goes wrong, he adds, it’s basically a license to “uncork on someone.”

This sentiment is echoed in a 2021 essay by The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, “American Shoppers Are a Nightmare.” As Mull explains, most modern Americans have limited control over many aspects of their lives. They’re more socially isolated than they used to be, and “don’t exactly have a plethora of opportunities to develop meaningful identities outside their economic station.” In lieu of that deeper self-meaning, “the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but our increasing desire, as patrons, to get every single thing we want, exactly the way we want it, may have turned us into big babies.

When people can’t dictate the contours of these consumer experiences, when they are subject to perceived indignities like a cramped middle seat or a long wait to leave the airport, Mull says, they sometimes make “a mess.” Whether that means lashing out at flight attendants or fuming over crying babies, the root cause is the same: a consumer culture run amok. One that’s not changing anytime soon, meaning as long as there’s an internet, there will likely be a plentiful supply of Reddit rants and TikTok videos on the subject of whether babies should be allowed to fly.

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