Good “Car-Ma” For Long Car Trips

We took time to stop at parks, like this one in Fallon, NV. The kids were delighted to find rusting and not-entirely-safe playground equipment from a previous generation. Colly forgot the word for "merry-go-round," since she so rarely sees one, and said, "They have one of those tables that spins!"

We took time to stop at parks, like this one in Fallon, NV. The kids were delighted to find rusting and not-entirely-safe playground equipment from a previous generation. Colly forgot the word for "merry-go-round," since she so rarely sees one, and said, "They have one of those tables that spins!"

The four of us plus the dog just drove 1100 miles from Northern California to Southwestern Colorado, and along the way we avoided family feuds and never resorted to Happy Meal bribery (as in, “If you can be patient until the next town, then we’ll stop at McDonald’s”). The kids agreed it was one of the “funnest” long car trips in recent memory, and they didn’t seem to mind that we had no DVDs, no video games and limited personal space in the tightly packed Subaru Outback wagon. Here’s what I learned or was reminded of regarding car travel with kids as we passed the miles:

  • Take time to get there. We divided the trip into 3 days and 2 nights, even though it can be done pretty easily with just one overnight. Arriving at our midway destinations with time to spare allowed the kids to swim in the motel pool and play at local parks.
  • Share the music and listen together. We all have our own IPods and could have driven with earbuds firmly implanted, in our own little worlds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that for some of the time, but we chose to listen to one IPod at a time (trading off between the kids’ playlists and ours) and played it through the car stereo for all to hear. The upside: the conversation kept going, and the kids were happy that we were willing to listen to their music.
  • Let the kids pack easy reading that they truly want to read. Colly indulged in magazines like Tiger Beat and QuizFest, while Kyle devoured the Bone graphic novel series. They ended up reading magazines and comics together for literally hours, quizzing one another on topics such as “Are you a JoBro genius?” and “Who would you be at Hogwarts?”
  • Let them be bored. My impulse is to hand kids things to do and offer suggestions upon hearing the first complaint.  That might be necessary with toddlers and little kids, but for school-age kids, it’s worth holding back to see what the silence and squirminess produce. Their imaginations kicked in, as when one asked the other, “Wanna play half-and-half?” “Half-and-half” is a game they made up by drawing an outline of something, such as a person or house, then folding the paper in half down the middle of the drawing and taking turns decorating half the picture without knowing how the other person was decorating the other half.
  • When kids ask questions about the surroundings, answer with, “What do you think?” or “Why do you think it’s that way?” When we were on a stretch of Highway 50, for example, we pointed out a sign indicating it was part of the old Pony Express, and they both asked, “What’s the Pony Express?” (I couldn’t believe they didn’t know or had forgotten.) We had them guess as to what it might be and then stopped for lunch at a diner filled with Pony Express memorabilia so they could figure it out.
  • Don’t assume kids have to have DVDs or video games to fill the time on long trips. We didn’t even pack audio books this time (though in the past we’ve enjoyed listening to audio books together).
    Limited laptop time: Here, the kids were messing around with the Mac's Photo Booth.

    Limited laptop time: Here, the kids were messing around with the Mac's Photo Booth.

    The only electronic games the kids played, for short periods of time, were chess and Photo Booth on my laptop or on Morgan’s IPhone.

  • Get in the back and play with the kids. I sometimes squeezed into the middle back seat, in between them, so the three of us could play Hangman and Thumb Wars.
  • Anticipate and accept moodiness and arguments. Trying to mediate sibling rivalry is a no-win prospect — a simple “I trust you both can work it out” works almost every time — since 9 times out of 10 the fight is at least in part a competition for parental attention. When one person seems distant or grumpy, don’t try to reel them in by repeatedly asking what’s wrong or demanding to know what they’re thinking. Let them start talking if they feel like it.  I was reminded on this road trip that moods change like the landscape and are best simply observed.
  • Pack a “last resort” toy or book for each kid that can be pulled out as a surprise if the going gets really rough. Anything by Klutz is a good bet. I tucked away two Klutz books in my backpack but never had to pull them out. When we got to Colorado and the car trip was over, I gave them to the kids as surprise thank-you gifts for being good travelers.

Got any other ideas for happy family car trips? Please share them in the comments below. And enjoy this sampling of the dozens of Photo Booth creations from our back seat:

colly_photo_boothkyle_photo_boothkids_photo_booth

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