Sitting next to your kids in planes can be both tiresome and fortunate, writes Penny Lewis.

Life got a lot easier when our children were old enough to go to the toilet on planes without our help. When the younger one needed to go, her big sister would take her. Everything stopped being such a fuss. Oddly, I can't remember exactly how old our daughters were, but I am guessing it was when we flew to Europe when they were aged 7 and 5.

This independence meant I could relax as I watched parents with younger offspring get in and out of their seats to wrangle the paraphernalia that babies and toddlers seem to require. Not to mention the desperate rush when your potty-training children tell you they need to go to the loo, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible, such as when your food has arrived or the drinks cart is in the way. "We don't have to worry about any of that carry-on anymore," I would think to myself with a satisfaction bordering on smugness.

The next step was for the girls to be seated together on a plane for shorter international flights, not split up and paired with my husband and me. After all, they had sat together on domestic flights as unaccompanied minors to visit their grandparents. What could go wrong?

Our children are well-behaved, responsible and know how to distract themselves from boredom with airlines' inflight entertainment systems. But they are still children (albeit 11 and 9 now).

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Two years ago we flew to Fiji for a family holiday. The flight over was with Air New Zealand and the return flight was on board a Fiji Airways plane. The girls sat together on the way over without incident. The way back turned out a little differently. For one thing, I didn't realise just how much our girls rely on inflight entertainment to get them through the boredom of being cooped up in a plane. The Fiji Airways flight had no screens.

I breezily insisted they sat in front of us, together. We took our seats, with Eva (then 7) directly in front of me. She started complaining about the lack of entertainment and said she didn't feel the best, but I put these protestations down to her sulking about having no inflight entertainment. Anyway, it had always been her older sister who was susceptible to travel sickness.

Then a couple with a young boy boarded the plane. The flight was full and they had boarding passes for the seat next to Eva, the seat next to mine and for a seat across the aisle. These were parents who actually wanted to sit next to their child. An announcement came over the plane's PA. "We have a 6-year-old boy on the plane who needs to sit next to one of his parents. Would anyone like to help them out by swapping seats?" I waited for one of the attendants to come by and said that I would change seats with the youngster. "Thank you so much!" said the attendant and one of her colleagues. "Thank you," said the boy and his parents.

"You're being thanked to sit next to your own children?" said my husband. Then, over the PA, the captain thanked me again and other people looked back at me in admiration. I was shrinking in my new seat with embarrassment. When they brought me a glass of bubbles I couldn't bring myself to drink it, such was my shame. I gave it to the boy's father and he thanked me again.

In the air, not long after take-off, Eva vomited, copiously and powerfully. Nobody thanked me then, but I thanked circumstance she hadn't spewed all over a young stranger.