I just spent almost 40 hours in the car with three kids – ages 10, 10 and 9 – over the course of nine days and 11 states. It was a great experience, but I learned a few things along the journey and made mental notes as to what worked and what didn’t.
Overall, they did the trip amazingly well – and without any technological devices and strapped down with seat belts, unlike car trips from the past when we rolled around in the "way back" like softballs. I joked to my kids – and posted on Facebook – that I was going to present them with the Jack Kerouac Junior Achiever’s Award for their exemplary road tripping skills.
But truth be told, much of the car success was due to my own planning which was a result of hyper list making, visionary thinking and the advice of some wise parents in my life. Hopefully, this information will be of value to you and help eliminate at least one "are we there yet?"
Set rules before you leave the driveway. Share with the kids that you will stop off occasionally for the bathroom / gas / water, but you don’t want to hear fighting, whining or "are we there yet?" (Insert image of dads from decades past driving with one hand and whacking a kid in the backseat with the other. We can’t do that anymore, can we?)
Explain the car ride is part of the trip. Time is often irrelevant to kids, but depending on their age, tell them how long they will be in the car or gauge it in a way they can understand. Compare it to two television programs or the length of a school day. If your kids are a little older, they will get this. Car trips are about seeing new states and enjoying the scenery along the way.
Pack a fun bag. Have the kids pick out books, electronic devices, pads of paper, their favorite stuffed animal and pens / pencils and put all of the items in a bag. Then, surprise them with a few new items, too, like comics or word searches or little toys. (You cannot put Benadryl in the bag. Sorry.)
Have secret weapons. Keep a couple of "meltdown" items in the front seat with you. On our trip, I had Mad Libs, books on tape, gum and this awesome Chat Pack for Kids. Sometimes we all need an instant mood changer.
Pack a snack bag. I brought an assortment of snack items that were car friendly, including pre-packaged chips and cookies that I would not usually buy but they are easy to eat in a vehicle. I also packed apples, bananas and peanuts. Peanuts were a terrible idea – they made them thirsty and the shells on the floor gave the van a really-out-of-context bar vibe. They enjoyed passing the snack bag around and picking their treat directly from the bag. We also saved money this way, often eating a big, late breakfast, snacks throughout the day and then dinner.
Limit the intake of liquids. I never gave the kids a whole bottle of water. Instead, I poured small amounts of water into their individual water bottles. Often they did not ask for more, but when they did, I gave them another inch of liquid. I would pass on juice boxes and bags because they just guzzle those down for the taste instead of for hydration.
Make kids use the rest room every time you stop even if they say they don’t have to. I used gross words like "just try to squeeze out a few drops" every time one of my sons said they didn’t have to use the bathroom. Not going simply was not an option. But even though I insisted they go at every stop, we still had a situation during our travels. And by situation I mean lots of Chicago traffic and a kid having to pee in an aforementioned water bottle.
Point out geography and nature. Parents have to help kids get the most of their experiences. I tried to point out every time we crossed a border or passed something interesting or beautiful, including mountains and a field of wind turbines. Half the time, they had their noses buried in a book and would have missed the beauty if I didn’t yell out, "Look! Nature on your left, people!"
Let the kids pick the music. Sometimes. I wasn’t always thrilled with their choices, but like the snack bag, when they were given the chance to pick something about their environment themselves it seemed to provide a fair amount of satisfaction. (I was not prepared for all the requests for "Papa Don’t Preach" by Madonna. It’s a phase, I guess.)
Go old school. Remember when we didn’t have anything but songs and annoying our siblings to amuse ourselves during a car trip? Many of these old school time passers are still effective today. Our license plate game was as simple as identifying and recording as many different licenses plates as we could. I will admit, however, when my son asked to sing "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall," as much as I wanted to say yes, protecting my sanity I just couldn’t allow it.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.