Back-Seat Sanity Savers for Road Trips

by | Jul 22, 2010 | Parenting, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Parenting advice to help you survive and (just maybe) even enjoy that Family Road Trip … Tips I shared this morning on the TODAY show.

The family road trip is as Americana as apple pie. It appears this summer more parents are doing just that — buckling up with their kids and taking mini or extended vacations via the automobile. While most parents dream about the perfect road trip adventure, a 2010 summer travel survey found that 42% of parents rate its stress level a five or higher (based on a 1-10 scale)[i].

So how can parents plan a family road trip they can feel good about and fondly remember all their lives and reduce that stress? All it takes is a little preparation and recognizing that the most common reasons for back-seat behavior flare-ups are boredom, hunger, fatigue and tight quarters. Here are Back-Seat Sanity Savers I shared this morning on the TODAY show to remedy those four behavior flare-up triggers, curb bickering, keep the kiddos happy, you less stressed, and even reduce those Are we there yet?” comments-and without breaking the bank.

Set Car Rules

How many times do parents have to say: “Keep your voices down!!!” or “Take Turns,” while travelling with their kids?  Clear expectations help reduce flare-ups, so set rules for the car and then explain them to your kids before starting that engine and pulling out your driveway. Typical car rules are: “Indoor voices. Seat belts. Hands-to-self. Pick up your mess.” Even better, post your rules in the car on a small white board as a “friendly reminder.” The board can also double for playing Tic-Tat-Toe or Hangman. (A little heads up: Do tell the kiddos that they may not erase the rules).

Your best discipline ploy for a severe kid behavior infraction: Pull off the road (after checking your rear-view mirror) and turn off the engine. Once your kids know you mean business, it’s amazing how quickly they resolve their squabbles. (Especially if they see you reading a magazine and figure out that they may be not be moving for a while until they do).

Your best ploy for loud voices: Play the Whisper Game. See how long everyone can use a voice that only a bunny (or hummingbird—why not?) can hear. Little ones love it, but no promises for teens.

Arrange No Cost, No Fuss Family Travel Games

A key to keeping kids’ behavior in check is fighting off those dreaded “I’m boorrrred” cries. That means keeping the kids occupied but doing so you don’t have to jump over the front seat to do so. This is a great time to introduce all those family road trip games you played as a kid like the License Plate Game (pack a U.S. map and start a family contest to see if you can find a license plate per state) or I Spy which are especially great for extra long driving stretches.

A must for any car trip is a cookie sheet. (No kidding!) Pack one per kid because they have multiple uses. You can stack and store them easily under the front seat, and then pull them out and convert them into instant tabletops to play card games like Old Maid or Fish, color, write postcards to friends or even snack on as trays. Most cookie sheets are magnetic, so kids can play magnetic games on them without worrying about pieces flying all over the car, and their rims keep all those smaller cars, blocks and crayons from slipping off.

Allow for Quiet, Solo Time

Of course you’ll also need to find ways to keep kids occupied with noise-free “alone times” which is important if one passenger dozes off when fatigue finally sets in. (Hope, hope!) So bring a few gadgets that will keep kids engaged and entertained solo style. Look for entertainment units that come with earplugs so the driver can also enjoy some peace and quiet. Believe me, those devices come in handy when traveling at night, which many parents swear is the only time to drive with kids. A word to the wise: do remember to pack a few extra batteries. The two items I’ve chosen also have plug-in adapters for the car. Here are my two favorites:

For younger kids: I love the V.Reader – the world’s first e-book for kids. It has animated stories like The Little Engine That Could and Shrek that kids can read and follow along on their own. More than 100 stories are available to download at, including some free titles.

The reader also comes with interactive reading games to play. But best of all, it has a backlight – perfect for night driving – and headphones so Mom and Dad can enjoy quiet time.

For tweens and teens: Most already have MP3 players which they’re sure to bring, so why not take it up and notch and give them some popular audio books to download to help the time fly by? You can check out the latest audio-books from the library before starting the trip–from the Twilight series to classics like Lord of the Flies, Hatchet or To Kill a Mockingbird—and they’re free. Just make sure they packed their earphones and consider purchasing an adapter to plug into the car and so you can go the whole trip without batteries.

Pack Rations in a Cooler

“I’m hungry! is a guaranteed backseat complaint. So packing a mini cooler filled with chilled bottled waters, juice boxes and healthy snacks like apples, crackers and cheese, and power bars is a must. But there are also added perks. Snacking helps occupy the kids’ time and lets you drive a few more miles so you don’t have to take quite as many pit stops. A well-attended stomach also can reduce the risk of motion sickness. And once bellies are satisfied, kids tend to relax, and are more likely to take a little nap. (Sigh!)

But there’s one more benefit: The small cooler gets double duty as a divider between bickering siblings. That’s because establishing physical boundaries (“This is your side. The other side of the cooler is your brother’s side.”) can help curb squabbles. Take this one from a former special education teacher.

Create a Keepsake As You Go

One way to keep the kids occupied is to encourage them to create their own summer vacation memories along the drive. Give each child an inexpensive camera  to take pictures of their favorite things during the trip. Then when you’re back, the kids can create a scrapbook full of memories that will be a keepsake for years to come. And you’ll be enhancing their photography as well as writing skills. Of course, kids can also keep a diary of their adventures or a box filled with little treasures found along the way. Just encourage them to search for no-cost items like a bird’s feather, a shell, the most beautiful leaf.

Have Fun!

No matter what, remember it’s YOUR summer vacation as well. If you can relax and go with the flow, you your family will have a lot of fun. If you set your expectations for the trip low at the beginning, anything can be a plus!

P.S.: Don’t forget to pack a set of earplugs (for yourself!)

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert and TODAY Contributor


A 2010 Family Road Trip survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs – a global survey-based market research company, North America. The national random sample consisted of more than 500 U.S. adults interviewed by phone from April 11-19, 2010.