Taking the Dread Out of Your Family’s Dreaded Car Trip

November 20, 2008 at 7:24 am (Published)

Published in Garden and Hearth Magazine, July, 2003.


We realized it would be an adventure driving from Pittsburgh to northern Texas and back last Thanksgiving, with our children (ages 5 and 7) in the car.  Our friends told us we were crazy.  Not only did we survive the encounter, but one could argue that we even had fun.  Here’s how to keep your family sane on a trip that lasts 44 hours, both ways, without using duct tape or a bottle of Old Granddad.


Important Supplies.


Buy each child a sketchbook, and a 64-pack of crayons to share between them.  Also visit a toy store the week before the trip and purchase about $35 worth of small games and toys; one hand-held electronic game with an on/off switch for the sound, one hand-held puzzle, one game that you fill with water and press buttons to make colored balls dance around, one hand-held maze, and one hand-held drawing gadget.  Keep these items secret from the children, stashed in a bag under the passenger side seat. The only items you disperse at the beginning of the trip are sketchbooks and the crayons; save the others to periodically surprise them with.  Once they understand that Mommy has a “Fun Bag” under her seat, they’ll be motivated enough to stop poking at each other, to be “good enough” to get the next toy.




You’ll get further by putting some thought into the travel music.  Bring an entire CD case full of CD’s that fit into three categories: Grownup Music, Kid Music, and Everybody Music.  Grownup music includes anything from Norah Jones to The Cure; Kid Music consists of comical CD’s from their favorite cartoon shows, as well as both soundtracks and compilation CD’s from famous children’s movies.  Everybody Music is made up of that quintessential, “everybody singing in the car” songs like greatest hits records from Elvis, the Beatles, Crowded House and Tom Jones; compilation CD’s from the 1980’s, and the mother of all singalong CD’s, “ABBA’s Greatest Hits.”  (Earplugs are recommended during children’s overenthusiastic performances of “Dancing Queen,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Video Killed the Radio Star.”)  Alternate CD’s between the three categories, and listen to the mellower Grownup Music when the kids are asleep.  During times when anyone complains about the music, have one Discman to rotate around.




Ask each child to use crayons and sketchbooks to create a diary of your trip.  Our son (who can’t yet read or write, and who we dubbed “The Official Artist of the Trip”) was asked to draw pictures of different things we saw from the car, pictures of the motels, things we ate for dinner, his sister sleeping across from him.  Our daughter (“The Official Cartographer”) was asked to keep lists; a list of all the states we passed through, a list of all the major cities and monuments we passed, and a list of highways we drove on (which can come in as a handy tool when you get lost and need to backtrack…).  Be prepared to spell a lot of titles, and to come up with a creative explanation for why Arkansas is spelled and pronounced the way it is.  The diaries can be the best trip mementos of all, and either kept or used later as Christmas gifts to the relatives you’re going to see.


Snacks and Meals.


Snacks should be available to the kids, but not anything that will wind them up or end up on the floor mats.  Bring a box of juice packets (containing 10 servings) for the way there, and another box for the way back.  Potato chips in a re-sealable bag or tube prove to be a great idea, as do previously-prepared, sealed baggies of fruits and vegetables that travel well (such as carrots and green pepper slices, or grapes and dried apricots).  Make it a point to stop for ice cream at least once per travel day, usually close to the time you’re checking in to a motel.  That way, your children can burn the sugar off in the motel pool, and they still get to have dessert AND sleep well later. Usually, motels offer free breakfast as a condition of your stay, and you can later opt for a fast-food lunch (but NOT kids’ meals, just the cheeseburger…you already have drinks in the car).  Dinner can be more substantial, at an inexpensive, homestyle restaurant.  Doing things this way makes sure that everyone has enough to eat, and has the added benefit of minimizing food costs while still keeping things varied and enjoyable.  Make sure you remove straw wrappers before you give straws to the kids, unless you want spitballs on the back of your neck for the next 50 miles. 


The Best Part…Car Games!


The best piece of advice I can offer about car games (and occupying children in general) is “nothing cracks a child up like a grown-up acting deliberately and unexpectedly silly.”  Pretend you forgot which day it is, or where you’re going.  When you’re getting dressed at the motel, put your pants on backwards and ask the kids why your butt feels funny.  Cross your eyes at them for no particular reason.  It’s goofy, but it works!  Just make sure you’re clear about the boundaries of jokes because kids will take jokes as far as you let them.


Rhyme Time.

Use a simple word, like “cap.”  Everyone takes turns going around the car, finding words that rhyme with the chosen word.  This allows kids to realize that certain things rhyme, and allows you the chance to be laughed at when you say things like “elephant” when it’s your turn.



When everyone is getting stressed out (and there WILL be times like that), declare that it’s time for everyone to complain.  Then you all take turns complaining.  After awhile, everyone runs out of complaints, and it gets silly because you have to make up things like “My pants are itchy!” or “I can’t stand movies with Danny DeVito in them!”  (The game only works if you keep going after the actual complaints have stopped.)


Mistaken Identity.

For no particular reason, begin acting as though you have forgotten which child is which.  Call each child by the other’s name, wonder why they are dressed in the other child’s clothes and sitting in the other child’s seat.  The kids may deliberately start acting like the opposite child, with hilarious results.  They may even suggest that they act like the parent and YOU act like the child, which is both fun AND educational!


Numerical “Poopyhead.”

No kid, anywhere, can resist laughing at the word “Poopyhead.”  And it’s important to reinforce their math skills.  So, here’s a really silly one that’s, well, silly…but lets the kids practice counting AND use a word they’re not normally allowed to say, in a controlled atmosphere.  Take turns choosing a number between 1 and 100, and have that person start counting off from number one.  Everyone in the car says their number in turn, until you reach the number selected earlier, which allows everyone to yell “Poopyhead!” in unison instead of the number.  Then you choose a new number (and, through luck of the counting system, the new Poopyhead).  The game is completely inane, and some parents might argue, inappropriate; but to those parents I can only point out that the more conservative and straight-laced you are as a person, the funnier it will be to your kids to hear you use the word Poopyhead.  5 to 8-year-olds will be captivated, I promise.


Basic Do’s and Don’ts of a Long Car Trip With Children.


DO:      Stop for at least one corny tourist stop.

DON’T: Let kids go to rest-stop bathrooms alone.


DO: Declare “quiet time” periodically.

DON’T: Play anything by Ice T during quiet time.


DO: Choose cheap motels with a pool.

DON’T: Forget inflatable water wings.


DO: Tell stories about your childhood family trips.

DON’T: Say how dysfunctional they were…


DO: Point out police cars as you pass.

DON’T: Encourage kids to make piggy-faces.


DO:  Be honest when kids ask, “How much longer?”

DON’T: Wait too long to find a bathroom!


DO:  Have napkins and wipes handy.

DON’T: Let your son turn them all into puppets!


DO: Have a trash-bag in both front and back.

DON’T: Hesitate to pull over if a kid removes his seatbelt.


DO: Find many opportunities to be silly!

DON’T: EVER forget that this, right here, is the good stuff!


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