On the Road Again: Traveling with Young Children and other Lapses in Judgment: Revised Edition

Apr 15, 2000 (Updated Apr 16, 2000)

Due to the lack of Travel Guides* for Real Parents, I decided to write my own. I'm not going to bore you with a listing of handy gadgets and nifty little suggestions all tied up in a neat little bow, designed to make your hours-long trip feel like time travel at warp speed. Nor will I subject you to a blow-by-blow transcript of the "He's TOUCHING me again!" sort of fights, which inevitably transpire on long car trips. We've all been there at one time or another. You were either the toucher or the touchee. An only child may be the exception here, but you get the picture. I am here to offer you real suggestions to alleviate your Road Rage, and I should point out here that this is the kind directed at your own vehicle occupants, not those of other cars.

You start out with such high hopes and optimism. You fantasize about how you will read that "new" bestseller that's been gathering dust on your bedroom dresser since you started reading it the last time your Mom came to visit (coincidentally, this is also the last time you slept for more than 2 consecutive hours), while the kids quietly wile away the hours with group games and show tunes. This time, it's gonna be different!!

No, it's not, you idiot! You are going to be about 20 minutes into your 10 hour drive, and think, this is it, I am stopping this car, and somebody is going up for adoption! Don't even think about that - adoption would take WAY too long to give you any immediate relief. No, my friend, what you need is a quick fix.

And so it is with a mixture of anticipation, fear, and dread that I contemplate our next trip northward next week for the Easter holiday. Looking back on our last trek "up North" with all the kiddies (age 7 & under) in tow, I have to laugh at my naivete. I smugly sat with my carefully selected collection of travel games, toys, and snacks that I was certain were guaranteed to sufficiently distract my 4 darlings for the entire 9 hours. So it was with great consternation that, a mere 45 minutes into the trip, I sat staring blankly out the window. I was filled with the utmost despair as I surveyed the game pieces, crumbs, trash, and spilled drinks coating the floor of the van in a thick coat, as their banshee cries rose in my ears. It was at this very moment that I experienced a moment of startling clarity.

Here I am, like some deranged magician, pulling trick after trick from my hat to my unimpressed audience. I slowly came to the realization that it didn’t matter what I had up my sleeve; they were still going to find something to fight about. This inevitability, while providing no immediate solution, was oddly comforting to me. I decided to just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and count to 10 (or maybe 3,652). Then I forced myself to “lighten up.”

Let’s face it, kids will tire of any game eventually, no matter how engaging. Besides, somebody always has to win. And that means that someone else has to LOSE. Not to mention the fact that with everybody strapped tightly in his/her respective place, somebody is bound to drop something out of reach. The only thing that can possibly save you is a sense of humor.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to distract your kids in the car. On the contrary, bring a reasonable amount of activities for the car. Nix any toy with more than 3 moving parts. Make sure everyone has their own spill-proof cup, a supply of napkins within reach, and a comfy pillow and blanket. Try to space out your meal and bathroom stops to break things up a little. Travel in the late afternoon to early evening, if possible. This will almost guarantee that most of the kids will be simultaneously asleep for at least part of the trip. Of course, it will be too dark to read by then, but hey, you can’t have it all.

I recommend dressing everyone in sweats and tee shirts, since these comfortable garments can double as pajamas. Trust me - you do not want to have to try to pry a pair of jeans from a sleeping child when you arrive at your destination or hotel at a late hour and risk awakening them. This could potentially trigger one of those crying jags in the child where they are somewhere between awake and asleep and you cannot make contact with them.

A word to the wise - seating arrangements are KEY to your peace of mind if each child is not going to have a seat all to him/herself. DO NOT let the "poker" sit next to "Miss Hypersensitivity." For me, this means separating those closest in age, since these combinations tend to have the most friction. In our '96 Caravan, this has child #1 and #3 in the back, with #2 and #4 in the middle. One drawback is that the 2 eldest children, who actually have some grasp of the rules of travel games, are not sitting together and thus cannot play together. This is greatly outweighed by the benefit of them not arguing.

Above all, remember that no one can expect to travel any considerable distance with small children without encountering at least some minor discomfort and inconvenience. You are NOT going to make "good time." You will probably have to stop 19 times for bathroom breaks, and some of these breaks may only be 5 minutes apart 9"I didn't have to go THEN, I have to go NOW"). Let's face it - the best you can hope for is that no one will throw up on anyone else.

My final suggestion to you is to check any high expectations at the gate, and make sure your sanity is in your carry-on bag. On that note, I will leave you with this fine sentiment from the great Mark Twain:
“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Bon voyage!

*Note: This editorial was originally posted in the travel section under travel guides. I am reposting this revised edition in what I feel is a more appropriate category.

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