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
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.
GOLDEN RULES OF ROAD TRAVEL
1. PLAN AHEAD
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.
2. BE FLEXIBLE
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.
3. UNDERSTAND YOUR FAMILY'S RHYTHMS OF THE ROAD
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.
4. TAKE BREAKS
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.
DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT...
EMERGENCY MEDICAL KIT
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 CARMEN SANDIEGO tape.
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
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)