B Y  C A N D Y C E  H .  S T A P E N

It could have been a classic family driving disaster: bumper-to-bumper traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, dead batteries in my son's Walkman, and a dried-up "magic" pencil that prevented my younger daughter from using her pad of games. We were on the verge of panic when my husband, David, came up with an inspired idea--a contest to name the silliest (but most well-meaning) gift. David won when he told how his kindly aunt, who worried about his eating enough at college, mailed him a fully roasted chicken via parcel post. It arrived about a week later, rather greenish about the thighs, smelling more like trash than a good meal.

The story became a family classic, illustrating for us a good deed gone goofy. Since then, whenever someone does something helpful that regretfully turns into a faux pas, we use "remember the chicken" as a rallying point. Such anecdotes reveal an important point about family car trips: The very thing that makes them difficult--many hours in close proximity--can also make them rewarding. After all, when else does the whole family have a long stretch of time unencumbered by distractions and everyday routines? Road trips can become rare opportunities to talk and play together in different ways, provided, of course, that you plan ahead, remain flexible, and have a few tricks up your sleeve.

Use car time to really talk with and listen to your kids. One sure-to-please subject is stories about your childhood. These allow your children to view you as a person and not just as a parent. And these yarns provide an opening for kids to share their own experiences. During the long stretches of highway, you may finally hear about fifth grade cliques and what it feels like to be on their periphery, as well as learn that your second grader secretly longs to be a zookeeper.


Prevent last-minute scrambling by readying everything before the big day. Have the car cleaned, tuned, and gassed, the luggage packed, the snacks prepared, the maps and comfortable going-down-the-road clothes laid out the evening before. Give each child an appropriate task so he or she feels good about helping. Let preschoolers bag their favorite (mostly healthy) snacks for the road and put older kids in charge of equipping the backseat with such necessities as pillows, blankets, and games. If you need to spiff up before arriving at your destination, put one bag with good duds within easy reach so that you can change at a convenient rest stop.

Between leaving home and coming back again, even the best-laid plans of moms, dads, and travel agents can go awry--babies spit up, toddlers wail, hotels disappoint, teens get bored, and spouses become irritable. What to do? You can't plan for every wrong turn, but you can ready yourself by knowing that these things will happen. An adaptable, realistic attitude goes a long way toward helping you keep your perspective and sense of humor. That 30-mile detour that creates a delay may lead you to the perfect picnic spot. Of course, it also might not. If you can factor in extra time for delays or backup plans for major snafus, though, you might find yourself a little less tense when your careful preparations dissolve. Another tactic is to use laughter to defuse the situation--tell riddles, share your silliest memories, solicit examples of how things could be worse.

Some families, especially those with preschoolers, prefer putting their kids in pajamas and starting the trip after an early supper. At night the traffic is diminished and the backseat more peaceful because kids sleep. Other families find their salvation in early morning starts that deliver them to a destination before the late-afternoon, kid-cranky hours. When plotting side trips, remember to be realistic. Kids are creatures of habit, and their routines, like nap time, don't fade away just because you're on vacation. Try to coordinate museum and other stops for their best times.

Avoid long car rides by stopping every two or three hours for a snack, a rest room, or a stretch. Try a picnic and a Frisbee game at an area park. When driving for several days, plan to arrive at your lodgings each day by 4 or 5 P.M. so that the kids can enjoy a swim at the hotel. This turns long hauls into easily realized goals.


One guarantee of any car trip is that family members will get hungry at different times. While you may be full from your hearty breakfast or so enthralled with the mountain view as not to need lunch, around 10 A.M. your child will undoubtedly announce, "I'm hungry." Preparation is your ally in these situations. Pack some good-for-you treats and store cold juice in a cooler. Having your own stash of food enables you to stop when you need a break or when the family wants a leg-stretcher rather than when one of the kids has a fit of the munchies.

After miles on the road, you will commonly hear such backseat cries as "He's on my side" or "I only hit her because she put her doll on my leg." Some parents solve these territorial disputes with real borders. Tape a line down the middle of the backseat and make it clear that these two "countries" don't allow unwanted visitors. Put toys for each child in his or her own mesh bag. For each kid, keep a pillow and a small blanket handy and make sure that each can easily reach his or her own goodies. When the timing seems right, toss into the backseat a few games for two (cards, traveling checkers) that can be played across the border.

Another option is to vary the seating. Put one child up front with the driver and the other in the back with a parent. Not only do fights fade, but also each parent-child team can tap into some valuable one-on-one time.

You may want to invest in an inexpensive portable cassette player and buy headphones for each child. That way, when your kids replay THE LION KING sound track or Nirvana's "The Man Who Sold the World" endlessly, they're happy and so are you.


Keep one ready to go and within easy reach in the car and at your destination. Pack items suitable for adults as well as children. Include pain reliever, a thermometer, any medication needed on a regular basis, bandages, antibiotic ointment, a motion-sickness remedy, and first-aid spray.

Even the best of buddies need some time apart, and that applies to families en route. Let each child bring a favorite toy or two for the road. Perennial winners include coloring books, magnetic checkers, handheld video games, and, for little kids, Colorforms sticker scenes. Be sure to use the car's tape player to sing along to your favorite show tunes or solve cases as a supersleuth by popping in a

Save some surprise toys for when you reach your destination--a great way to keep kids engaged while you unpack, organize the condo, or share a welcoming cup of coffee with your relatives.


If you want to splurge on books and games especially designed for travel, here are some to keep stir-crazy kids happily--and quietly--busy for hours:

KIDS TRAVEL: A BACKSEAT SURVIVAL KIT by the editors of Klutz Press, Klutz Press, $19.95

ON THE ROAD: FUN TRAVEL GAMES AND ACTIVITIES by George Shea, Sterling Publishing Co., $4.95

TRAVEL GAMES FOR THE FAMILY by Marie Boatness, Canyon Creek Press, $9.95

ARE WE THERE YET? TRAVEL GAMES FOR KIDS by Richard Salter, Prince Paperbacks, $6

Sealed with a Kiss makes custom travel kits ($30 each + $5 shipping and handling) full of games, puzzles, and crafts suitable for ages three and up. Many are hard to find on your own and would cost more to buy on your own. Call 800-888-SWAK.

Rabbit Ears Productions (800-800-EARS) features kid-friendly story tapes.

Candyce H. Stapen loves driving with her kids. They recently helped Mom with her new book FAMILY ADVENTURE GUIDE: VIRGINIA (Globe Pequot)


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