A road trip with school-age children requires planning and flexibility. It requires realistic expectations. It also requires good self-care for the parents, or you’ll feel like you need your own vacation after the family vacation. To illustrate these points, let me tell you a story about my good friend Chadd.
When Chadd was about fourteen, his family embarked on a trip to Florida from Indiana. His mother, stepfather, and three younger siblings were ready to make the trip in their nice roomy conversion van. The kids woke up early, waiting for the dad to return home from working the night shift. When he got home, he got out of his car and stepped into the van – the van wouldn’t start. They had to unpack the van and load into a rented Reliant K, which is an “economy car.” Going from a conversion van where everyone had personal space to six people in a K car makes for grumpy travelers. Chadd said his mother was very verbal about her displeasure at running behind schedule, and his stepdad was grim-faced and tired since he hadn’t slept for 36 hours.
So this is how they left for their family vacation to Florida, crammed in a tiny car with no air conditioning and already they can’t stand each other. Chadd said they all fell asleep somewhere in Tennessee, including the dad who was driving. Suddenly, they all woke up bouncing through the median into oncoming traffic. Chadd told me the K car spun around and stopped in the middle of the opposite lane of traffic. Everyone was quiet as the dad tried in vain to start the car up again. After several frantic attempts, the Reliant K started and they slowly turned, drove over the median, and just kept on going to Florida. There was no more complaining, as they were all now just grateful to be alive. That’s what Chadd remembers about his family vacation to Florida. He laughs about it now, but at the time…not so funny.
How could such memories possibly be avoided? First of all, poor dad was very sleep deprived. It wasn’t realistic to think he could stay awake for another 24 hours. It would have been better to just wait a day so he could recover, or else mom could have driven. Secondly, it was poor planning to squeeze 6 people into a small, hot car. Better travel as comfortably as possible. A little more flexibility, planning, and realistic expectations would have led to a better start to Chadd’s family vacation.
But flexibility, planning, and realistic expectations requires a lot of upfront work from the parents. Taking a trip with kids means different bladder sizes, so expect to stop a lot more. Expect the trip to take longer than you think, because every time you stop for a 5 minute potty break it adds 20 minutes to your estimated time of arrival. Expect that kids will need some time to move around and stretch. When my family travels, we stop about every 2 or 3 hours at a rest area and give the kids some recess time. I have them run races and do calisthenics before getting back in the car.
The rest areas, when they are nice, are also great places to have lunch. We pack a picnic and eat at the rest area. It’s cheaper, and the kids can run off some energy. It’s also a good idea to have healthy snacks that aren’t messy. Trail mix, fruit, and water are good choices. Pop, chocolate, and other things that get sticky and melt should be avoided when in the car, obviously.
Long stretches on the road are more tolerable for the kids, and consequently for the parents, if the kids have activities that keep them occupied and entertained. Our 9 year-old likes to read, so we get her a few new books (library or bookstore) for the trip. Both of our older kids enjoy their GameBoys, so we make sure they have those. A portable DVD player is brought out only if the trip is excessively long. I advise you to get a new movie for the trip. Our two year old enjoys screaming in her car seat, so we make sure the older kids have earphones for their audiovisual activities. We try to keep the “screen time” very limited on the car trips and on the entire vacation. The point of family vacations is to carve out a time to be TOGETHER, and video screens separate people. So good CDs for singing along, travel games from Crackerbarrel, and good conversation should be on the top of the agenda for car activities.
Another challenge on car trips with kids is discipline. About the time you leave your driveway, the “stop-touching-me” syndrome can start. I have adopted a bribery technique to keep the kids well-behaved that I learned from Dr. Tom Phelan, author of “1-2-3 Magic” and “Surviving Your Adolescents.” He suggests using a monetary reward system on long car trips. I get 20 one-dollar bills for each kid and put them clear zip-lock baggies with the kid’s name on it. I tell them they can have this money when we get to the destination, but 1 dollar will be deducted every time they whine, argue, yell, or fight with each other. They usually get to the vacation spot with 18 dollars extra to spend, and our trips are pretty peaceful.
Try using some of these tips and tricks the next time you have a long road trip with your children. No more will dad’s arm be reaching blindly behind him trying to grab an unruly child, and he won’t have to say “don’t make me stop this car.” Blood pressures will be lower, and trip satisfaction will be higher.