Michele Borba: 5 Sanity Savers for Those Family Road Trips

by | Jul 20, 2009 | The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

According to the Travel Industry Association, we usually take eight to ten summer car trips with the kids. Each trek is bound to be a fun family memory, right? Well, not always. Most parents’ car trip recollections consist of antsy kids repeatedly asking, “Aren’t we there yet?” Luckily, with a little preparation, you can reduce the kid squabbles and boost the “family fun factor.”

This week the Today show asked me to share ways to stay sane on those kid road trips. So here are a few parenting secrets for the six most likely road trip problems and simple ways to solve them so everyone — parents included — can enjoy fun and safe travels.

1. Boredom: “There’s nothing to do!”
Pack the car with things the kids can do to pass the time alone and together:
Mess-proof toys: cookie sheets with rims for lap desks so they can draw or play with magnetic letters and shapes; reusable sticker-books, etch-a-sketches, and car bingo boards
Pipe-cleaners, scotch tape, paper, foil: each passenger can take turns making something seen on the trip, while the others must guess what the creation is.
Books on tape: listen as a family to Charlotte’s Web and Lord of the Rings. Check them out of the library or purchase individual cassette players and earphones
DVD player and movies: do set a “limit rule” (i.e., you must drive three hours before they can watch, they can only watch a certain number per day, etc.)
Clutter savers: Have each kid store their own favorite things (including stuffed animals, MP3 players or toys) in personal backpacks. For a great clutter saver, hang shoe pocket organizers from the neck rest for backseat passengers to store toys.

2.Discipline: “Kevin hit me!”
Research finds that 3 to 7 year old siblings squabble about 3.5 times every hour and 2 to 4 year olds squabble about six times per hour — and that’s in your house! Strap kids into a car next to each other for several hours in heat and the result is T.R.O.U.B.L.E. Your best secret is to stay on the offense and anticipate bickering so you can head off World War III in your car. Here are a few offense parenting secrets:
Post car rules: “No shouting and hands to self” are critical for both sanity and safety. Review rules before starting your trip. Tape them inside the car. 
Set boundaries: A mini ice chest or box set between two kids creates a boundary in close quarters and makes a great drink holder as well as drawing space.
Take frequent stops: The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests you stop at least every two hours for about fifteen minutes. Your kids need potty breaks and the opportunity to run off that pent-up energy. Eating at a park (you can pick up meals at a drive through) instead of a restaurant allows kids more outdoor time. They’ll also be more likely to nap once back in the car. 
Keep on sleep schedules: Try to check into a hotel with a pool. Swimming not only cools kids off but also wears them down. They also sleep better at night and well-rested kids make better travelers. 
Use the brakes: If all else fails, pull over to the side of the road (after glancing in the rear-view mirror) and stop. You don’t need to say a thing –when you don’t start the car the kids have to know you mean business when it comes to no shouting or hitting.

3.Family Memories: “But you said we’d have fun!”
Involve the kids before you start the trip so each child can think about the one thing they would like to do or collect on the trip. A few ideas each child could do include:
Assign expert status: Get out the travel guide and atlas so that each child can mark key places they want to stop along the way. You can also ask an older child to read up on a certain historical site and teach the others about the location when you all arrive. 
A journal: Each day write or draw a favorite memory. 
A disposable camera: Each day take a photo of a favorite spot.
A scrapbook: Each day add to your collection (feather, wild-flower, post-card). 
A roll of quarters: Each day each child has a set allowance to spend in any way. 
A compass: Give each kid an inexpensive compass and teach them how to read it and plot the course in a small notebook.

4.Antsy: “Aren’t we there yet?”
Long driving stretches are tough on kids and drivers. Your best secret to fight the “aren’t we there yet?” battle cry is to use the scouting motto: “Be Prepared.” Here’s how:
Sing camp songs: Make a list of songs to sing like “Wheels on the Bus”, “The Ants Go Marching…” or purchase one great CD of camp songs for the whole family to sing.
Play car games: Research great family car games on the internet. A few oldies but goodies include: Bingo, I Spy, the License Plate Game, 20 Questions. Or get a great book of Knock-Knock jokes. 
Let your teen drive: Teach your teen to drive (if he has a permit) on those long, safe stretches.
Provide blow-up pillows: Make sure kids are comfortable for needed snoozes.
Give surprise treats: Give pre-purchased inexpensive treats (such as mini play-doh containers, notepads, colored pencils, stickers, fruit roll ups, gum) at strategic moments. Nothing’s wrong with bribery when sanity (yours) and safety (everyone’s) are at stake.

5.Parental angst! “What was I thinking!##@!?”
Remember that your passengers are children so don’t forget to bring patience and Tylenol (for yourself anyway). Keep your expectations low and then anything above it will be a pleasant bonus. And if all else fails, travel at night or very early in the morning, alternating drivers. Next year the kids will be a year older and things just may be easier. Meanwhile, don’t forget to have fun. You are making a memory!

(And don’t forget–it’s your vacation as well!)