Dear Mr. Dad: We’re planning our first big family road trip this summer, and I mean big! We’ve got three kids under seven. How can we keep them from going crazy and driving us nuts too?
A: Ah, there’s nothing like the family road trip to bring out the worst in parent and child alike. Fortunately, a little careful planning can make a world of difference.
The biggest problem for a child on a road trip is the endless, unmarked stretch of time. listening to the endless thrum of the pavement. As adults, we can look at the clock or the odometer and gauge how much time is left until the next break, the next meal, or stopping for the night. Young kids can’t do that.
Sure, there are now DVD players and televisions to make sure your children never make a sound during long trips. But as nice as those technologies are, using them also ensures that your children will grow up without the faintest recollection of the thousands of miles of scenic landscapes, great cities, and natural wonders they passed through as kids.
The road trip is a rare opportunity, and the journey can be just as important and interesting as the destination. Don’t sedate your kids for it—engage them in it. Some tips:
· Try to limit yourself to no more than six actual driving hours per day, divided into segments of ninety minutes to two hours with rests or meals in-between.
· Make sure you pack healthy snacks and drinks for the road.
· Bring balls or other toys to encourage exercise during rest stops.
· Give the youngest children a paper chain with a link for each hour you expect to be on the road and a brightly-colored link in the middle for “lunchtime.” Bring a one-hour timer in the car. Each time it dings, the child tears off one link. This can make all the difference in their perception of time.
· Bring paper, crayons or markers, and coloring books, plus a baking tray for each child to set in her lap. This provides a flat surface for coloring and keeps crayons from rolling to the floor. And bring along some surprises—toys or games they haven’t seen before—that they can open up in the car.
· Check your local library for kids’ books on tape or CD. Charlotte’s Web read by author E.B. White is considered by many to be the best children’s audiobook of all time.
· Before you leave, spend some time as family learning about areas you’ll pass through, then talk about what you’re seeing as you go: “This is the river Mark Twain wrote about,” or “This is where they found the first T-Rex! Imagine the dinosaurs who used to be here,” can encourage imagination and reflection and make the trip much more meaningful for everyone.
· If there are two or more adults on the trip, take turns sitting in back with the children.
· If you have a child in diapers, frequent diaper changes are a must for comfort.
· Use window shades to keep the sun out of their eyes. That won’t help the time go by any faster but it’ll make the drive a lot more comfortable.
· Make sure the kids are not hemmed in by walls of luggage.
· Involve them in the trip as much as possible. Kids as young as ten can help follow the road map. Younger kids can watch for upcoming landmarks, particular exit signs, or fast-food logos. Hand out compasses and have them keep track of your direction.
· Set car rules and expectations in advance.
With a little advance planning and some attention along the way, car trips can go from something to be endured to a memorable and enjoyable family experience.