A family car trip with kids in the backseat used to be a nightmare. “Are we there yet?” “Don't make me stop this car!” “Mom, he's touching me!” “I have to pee again!” The cliches about family road trips are enough to make airport security sound like a fun time.
But the reality is that a family car trip can produce great memories and gives your family the rare chance to bond over a shared experience. Here's how to make your next road trip with kids more enjoyable and less stressful. Let the fun begin!
Here's what you need to know to not only survive family car trip, but have fun with your kids. Try these ten tips:
1. Stash some forbidden snacks The junk food we'd never buy at home is fair game on a road trip - if you behave yourselves in the back seat. Giving kids a strong incentive to stay civil with each other cuts down on the bickering, and the treats help make the trip seem special.
2. Use technology only occasionally If you don't ordinarily depend on technology for child entertainment, this can be a treat rewarded in moderation. If your kids are used to television, video games and ipods, you might consider allowing it only in limited amounts during a trip so that you can use it as a reward for good car behavior.
And it doesn't have to be video. Some kids have motion sickness problems watching a screen in the car. But audiobooks work for even the queasiest kids. Our favorites are funny kids' books or Jim Weiss recordings of fables, myths and folk stories.
3. Feed kids watery snacks like fruit and veggies Kids can get dehydrated on long drives. Munching on moist foods helps. Our favorites are carrots, celery, cucumbers, jicama, apples and other fruits. One caveat: if you overdo this, the kids will have you stopping at every gas station for the next hour, so balance is key.
4. Consider traveling at night I wouldn't recommend an all-nighter, but I do like to take advantage of the hours when my kids are asleep. Driving until midnight or so puts some quiet miles behind you.
5. Consider bribery Typically I don't bribe my kids; I prefer to reward unexpectedly for good behavior. For a 3,000 mile road trip (I've survived it, people, and so can you), though, I need the big guns. If you have the time and flexibility on your family car trip, it makes sense to take advantage of the fun touristy stops along the way.
In our family, we're usually trying to blitz across the country, so we try to get there fast. At the rest stops and gas stations I give them each a dollar to spend on whatever snack they want (believe me, that's rare).
6. Play car games If your childhood included long road trips, you probably remember the alphabet game: everybody scans roadsigns, license plates and passing trucks to collect all the letters of the alphabet, in their proper order.
Roadside cribbage is another fun one. I suspect that every family's rules are a little different, but the basic idea is that you collect points for every animal you see on your side of the road. Certain animals are worth premiums – my family always kept an eye peeled for the coveted “cat sitting in a window” but you can make up your own bonuses. A graveyard on your side sets your tally back to zero.
7. Recite stories Our boys love hearing impromptu stories to pass the time. We'll make up typical children's stories about animals or superheroes, we'll paraphrase folk stories, we'll even retell funny stories about our own families.
One of our most popular story offerings is to tell the kids a story of what their lives will be like when they're grown up. We pause occasionally and let them fill in details about their jobs, or the size of their families, or the color of the cars that they drive, or what they like to do for fun. It turns into a fun “choose-your-own-adventure” activity. Sometimes the stories turn out so well we write them down to remember them.
8. Sing songs Singing songs together is a fun way to pass the time. Scouting groups have a lot of funny little songs that you can use for this purposes, or you can stick to classics like “You Are My Sunshine.” Fourth of July trip? How about “America the Beautiful?” Christmas time? See how many carols you can remember the words to, or my favorite, reciting How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Visit from St. Nicholas.
9. Buy maps and background information for the kids As kids get a little older, “Are we there yet?” turns into “Where are we now?” You can satisfy this curiosity on a car trip with a children's atlas or a road map of the area you're driving through. Help them follow your progress and you'll teach them valuable skills about navigation. You might even appoint an older sibling to the important job of answering all “How long until we get there?” questions based on his map work.
10. Be Flexible Nothing kills the family car trip like an 18-hour death march. When you're sharing a car with kids, you have to expect more frequent stops, some of which will be unexpected. If you modify your expectations to take this into account, your blood pressure won't spike every time they fuss.
A family car trip can be fun! Really! Try these 10 tips and prepare for a great time. Send me a postcard!