Image: Elly and Julie Kulesza
NBC Newschannel
Three-year-old Elly Kulesza plays with her mother, Julie. The Kuleszas have generated national attention after being kicked off an AirTran flight on Jan. 14.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 1/26/2007 6:16:15 PM ET 2007-01-26T23:16:15

In Louis C.K.’s new HBO special, aptly titled “Shameless,” the comedian jokes about his four-year-old daughter being a jerk. This being HBO, the actual terminology he uses is even harsher — a seven-letter word for the operative feature of a tushie.

In a jaded nation where precious little has the power to shock anymore, calling a child a jerk (or worse) remains one foolproof way to offend. Everything we do, we do for “the children,” or so we’re fond of saying.

That’s why the performer gets such a hearty laugh from his audience: In the context of comedy, we know he’s deliberately transgressing, making us laugh at our own discomfort. What kind of parent would blatantly admit such antagonism toward his own offspring?

Actually, the answer is: most of us, at least some of the time, if only we would tell the truth.

Like Louis C.K., the parents of the three-year-old girl whose tantrum got the whole family tossed off a plane last week are from Massachusetts, where people tend to speak their minds. Undoubtedly they were frustrated with little Elly, but Julie and Gerry Kulesza chose to reserve their anger (in public, at least) for the airline. As they tell it, the good folks at AirTran expelled the family back at the terminal in Florida, then taxied off to Boston with their luggage, diapers and car seat in the storage hold.

To their credit, when the local TV cameras arrived at their door after their travel ordeal was finally over, the Kuleszas frankly admitted that Elly was not being a very good girl on the flight, refusing to take her seat as the plane prepared for takeoff. Mostly, though, they took umbrage with the way the airline handled the situation.

“If I treated anybody the way they treated me,” said Gerry Kulesza, who works as an EMT, “I would be out of a job.”

Video: Family thrown off flight after tantrum As a nation, we do love our grievances. Parents who have been there before — my wife and I nearly swore off ever traveling again after a disastrous trip to Ireland with our then-two-year-old and his infant brother — are sufficiently mortified by the unwanted attention. Our fellow passengers’ grumblings, dirty looks and aggressive advice in many cases make us that much more inclined to throw tantrums of our own. And yet the solo traveler whose chair is being systematically kicked from behind has every right to expect the parent of the offending toddler to clamp down on the child with a mortal bear hug.

As for the airline in the Kulesza case, they claim the flight was already delayed by 15 minutes and that they had more than 100 other passengers to consider. Their position, too, is easy to understand. The bottom line is, no one deserves a screaming child.

Buried in the news reports about the incident was the real answer to the whole conundrum: When the family boarded another plane the following day, little Elly was apparently smuggling a dose (or three) of Children’s Benadryl in her tummy. It’s the dirty little secret — one of them, anyway — for all sanity-seeking parents. If the kids are prone to episodes during high-stress times such as airline travel, dope ‘em.

Hey — we used to rub their gums with whiskey and stick thermometers up their (ahem) tushies, and those kids turned out, for the most part, just fine. Sometimes in this coddle-crazy world of knee pads, baby monitors and toilet locks, the old-school, tough-love methods are the only rational option.

Last summer we were at a party where the conversation turned toward nostalgia for the lost art of traveling together as a family. The hostess recalled being one of six children whose parents routinely packed the kids in their sedan — no seatbelts — for the six-hour drive from Boston’s South Shore to Bar Harbor, Maine. On one vacation drive to New Orleans, the dad threw his back out. For the entire return trip, he sprawled across the back seat, with his sons and daughters wedged onto the floorboards and up on the back dash. None of the family recalled complaining of any kind.

As parents in the hypersensitive modern world, we can’t give up. It’s our job to socialize them, as difficult a task as that can be. Could the airline staff have handled the incident more diplomatically? Could the parents have taken better control of Elly? Could the other passengers have exercised a bit more compassion? If our kids don’t learn from an early age how to behave in public, they might just grow up to act like the adults do. contributor James Sullivan lives in Massachusetts with his wife and three boys.

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