No matter your child's age, that first flight — from navigating airport security, to watching the tiny houses pass miles below you — is a big milestone. Some kids enjoy the adventure of flight without any issues, while others feel the nerves a little more strongly. Whatever the disposition of your kids, gearing up in literal and figurative ways for the flight will help your journey go smoothly.

Here are some tips and tricks for prepping your child for his or her first airplane ride.

Educate Your Kids about Flying

Before they’ve ever been on a plane, your kids have likely only been exposed to flying in movies. At their best, the movies simplify flying. At their worst, they highlight and dramatize events like turbulence, or even crashes.

Fear often stems from a discomfort with the unknown — so, before you get on a plane, help your kids understand what flying is like in real life; not the Hollywood version. There are plenty of resources available to parents to help teach kids about the normally safe reality of flying. Check out the NASA UEET website, designed to explain the engineering of flight to kids. Based on the ages of your children, you can also visit your local library and ask for books appropriate for your kids. Strip away the unknown element of flight to boost confidence in your kids.

Explain Security Checkpoints

TSA procedures feel like no big deal to adults who have flown before – but the hustle and bustle, and the big metal detectors can be scary to kids going through security for the first time. Explain ahead of time what will happen when it’s your turn to run your items through the X-ray machine. In fact, your kids may find it fascinating that this machine can look straight through their bags — focusing on the “cool factor” of X-ray technology is sure to melt away any nerves!

It’s unusual for kids to need a pat down, but make sure you know your rights as a parent if that happens – and convey those rights to your kids (without over-dramatizing it). Essentially, let your children know there is nothing to fear, and all of the security checks are standard operating procedures at airports.

Talk About the Destination

Flying is just a means to an end; the most exciting part of air travel is the place you will land. Spend plenty of time showing your kids pictures of the spot you’ll be visiting. Talk about how you will spend your time there, the activities you’ll do, and the new places you’ll explore.
If you are flying to see family, tell some stories that give the visit context. Ask your kids to share what they’re most looking forward to on the trip, or who they can’t wait to see and why. Discuss pleasant memories, and joyful anticipation of all the fun you’ll have. Focusing on the end goal can alleviate some of the concerns related to flying itself, and helps keep your kids in a positive mindset.

Have Your Child Pack a Bag

There is a lot of advice out there about what to pack for your kids when flying, but this point is more about empowerment than the actual items in the suitcase. You can help your kids look forward to the adventure by letting them take ownership over part of the preparation. If they’re old enough, have them assist you in packing their suitcases.
More importantly, encourage your kids to pack their own bag – something that qualifies as a personal item, like a purse or small backpack – with whatever they want to have during the flight. This can include items like snacks, coloring books, and personal electronics. Simple things like a deck of cards or trip journal can help pass the time in a fun way. The act of choosing what to bring, and picking fun-filled items, gives children a sense of independence and responsibility — plus, they’ll feel even more excited about taking the flight so they can use the fun items they packed!

Consider slipping in a surprise item that you know your child will appreciate when in flight.

Check Seat Assignments in Advance

Do not assume that your seats are assigned together because you are a family, or purchased the tickets at the same time. Most airlines require you to choose seats upon online check-in (this usually starts 24 hours before the flight). Choose seats closer to the front of the airplane if you can, for easier boarding and deboarding.

Decide if you want to upgrade your space to a bulkhead selection, and how many bags you want to carry on. Some airlines will even let you pay extra for priority boarding. Don’t wait until arriving at the airport to make these decisions. You’ll have your work cut out for you just getting through security and to your gate on time. Ensure your seats and other options align with what’s best for your family in advance.

Travel Light

Most parents feel like pack mules when they cart their kids anywhere, and flying is no exception. Avoid the tendency to over-pack, particularly when it comes to carry-on items. You’ll need your hands to help your kids, and simplified baggage means more space during the flight.

For your own carry-on, include the essentials for your kids’ health and comfort; hand wipes and sanitizing gel (under 3 ounces, of course) are great for keeping germs at bay, and nutritious snacks will keep everyone happy in flight. Pack smart items help pass the time, like books or personal electronics — avoid too many traditional toys (you don’t need as many as you think). If your child has a special stuffed animal or blanket, ensure it makes it to the cabin of the plane (you don’t want to find out mid-flight that Teddy’s sitting in a checked bag!).

Answer Their Questions

It’s easy, as parents, to determine the need-to-know information, drop a bunch of knowledge on kids, and call it a day. Your child may have questions that fall outside the typical flying explanations, though. Take the time to ask what questions your kids have about the flying process, and then find the answers.

It’s also important to avoid trivializing their fears. For many children (and adults), flight anxiety is a genuine experience. Even if you feel there’s nothing to worry about, simply telling your children to “stop worrying” may only heighten their anxiety. Taking their fears seriously shows them not only that you care, but that you respect their feelings — and it makes them more likely to trust that you will keep them safe. Answer any questions about safety honestly, and find a way to reassure them without scoffing at their concerns.

Document the Occasion

Don’t forget to take a few photos and videos, both in the airport and on the aircraft. The flight to your location is part of the overall trip experience, and deserves to go in scrapbooks and online albums. Ask flight personnel or other passengers to get a photo of you and your kids together (or at least snap a selfie). You are part of your kids’ first flying experience, so get in the photographic evidence.

Give your kids something to look back on fondly, and build positive memories of flying as they reminisce about the trip. You may share these photos with friends and family members later, allowing your children to talk about the fun and adventure they had riding an airplane for the very first time. This can even help build up the excitement for the next time you fly together!

Take Advantage of the Time Together

Think about it: How often are you and your kids confined to the same space for several (or many) hours at a time? While it’s common to bring along electronics and other devices to pass the time, consider some interactive things you and your kids can do while in flight. Play a game of “I Spy,” commenting on things you notice inside the plane or out the window; play a guessing game where you ask questions to determine a mystery item; make up a fictional story together, stretching your imaginations. If you have to sit still, you might as well take advantage of this unusual moment in time to bond.

Your first flight could pave the way for many more cross-country or international trips together, so enjoy the start of a new family tradition. By anticipating what your kids may need or fear on their first flight, you can improve the chances that the trip is a success, from take-off to landing.

Author's Bio: 

Peter Mueller, Founder at Father's Rights Law Center and Mr. Mueller has been practicing law for 39 years and is licensed in California and Illinois. Graduating with honors from Loyola Law School in 1972, he was selected to associate with Chicago's leading corporate firm and was also invited to become a Visiting Professor of Corporate Law at Loyola Law, where he had held the position as Assistant Dean of the Business School during his law studies. At Loyola Law he taught upper class law students the core courses in business law while he worked for General Motors, American Oil Company, The Tribune Company, and the Catholic Bishop at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.