Kelli Koberlein never thought her 9-year-old son, Walker, could be a suspected terrorist.
Unfortunately for the Koberleins, the security agents at Kansas City International Airport had their suspicions.
The Lawrence family was flying to Tucson last month for Thanksgiving with relatives, and a camera Walker was carrying on set off a chemical detector at airport security. The next thing the family knew, both Kelli and Walker were being patted down by security agents.
The mother is quick to say that the agents were very professional and friendly. They explained what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. But it was still a little unnerving to watch as her son was being frisked.
“A little bit,” she says. “They were not nearly as thorough with him as they were with me. But who would have thought they’d be patting down a 9-year-old?”
The Koberleins’ experience underscores a predicament for some families traveling for the holidays: Should parents allow their children to undergo full-body scans, some of which expose children to radiation? Or should they opt for a pat-down from a security agent?
And, either way, how do they prepare their children for the airport security experience, which stresses out many adults?
Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Safety Administration, notes that only one of the two types of full-body scanners — the Backscatter version — uses X-Rays. (The other, Millimeter Wave, uses electromagnetic waves.)
Ruth Schukman-Dakotas, radiation safety officer at the University of Kansas Hospital, says the amount of radiation from the scanners is a small fraction — about half a percent — of what people are exposed to every day, which is called “background radiation.” The level of radiation from one scan equals the amount a person is exposed to during 2 minutes of flight time, and it would take 1,000 airport scans to equal the dose of radiation from a standard chest X-ray.
“If it were my children, with the occasional traveling we’re doing, I would have them go through the scanners,” she says.
Schukman-Dakotas notes that government agencies and independent expert groups who developed safety standards for the machines took into account that children would be the subject of some of the scans.
Lawrence father Raymond Munoz didn’t think twice about having his son, who is 5, go through a TSA scanner when they traveled in March to Corpus Christi.
“The experience we had with a scanner was pretty humdrum,” Munoz says. “TSA explained how the scanners worked, demonstrated what needed to be done, and then we went through without a hitch.”
Parents who still have concerns about the radiation should weigh the alternative of having their child be the subject of a pat-down, says Sara Minges, a child counselor and therapist who owns Playful Awareness LLC.
“Some kids could completely have a meltdown,” she says. “They learn the difference between good touch and bad touch, and that you get to choose who touches you. Having a stranger touch you can be stressful.”
Harmon, the TSA spokeswoman, says parents are never separated from their child if the child requires a pat-down, and that adults and children don’t receive the same scrutiny.
“TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers,” she says. “After a thorough risk assessment and after hearing concerns from parents, TSA made the decision that a modified pat-down would be used for children 12 years old and under who require extra screening.”
Yo Jackson, associate professor of child psychology at KU, says children will take their cues from their parents when it comes to handling the security process. If a parent is concerned about a pat-down, the child is more likely to as well.
“You want to minimize the amount of adult freak-out,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s any reason for concern, but you want to be observant. If you have a problem with how the child was treated, bring it up with the grown-ups and not the child.”
Whether you’re opting for the scanner or the pat-down, Jackson and Minges say preparation is key for a successful experience, especially if you’re not frequent fliers.
“It’s not a good idea to do that at the airport,” Jackson says of explaining security measures. “Do this before you leave. It will add to the stress of the situation if the kid is in the dark up until that point. Explain the process: We’ll get a snack, check our bags, you’ll stay by mommy.”
And focusing on the positives — the child will get to look out the airplane window, or see grandma soon — can keep him or her focused on the excitement of the day.
Minges agrees, also suggesting parents role-play the situations with their children. She also suggests parents play off the superhero fascination that many children have.
“Tell them they’re helping the police officer,” Minges says. “And I would probably just say the police officers are there to help everybody be safe.”
Koberlein, the Lawrence mom, says that was basically the attitude her son, Walker, took when he was patted down.
“He was not intimidated,” she says.
She may have been lucky — she hadn’t prepared her little one for that experience because she never expected it to happen.
“We’d be prepared next time,” she says.