Tips for Road-Tripping with Six-Year-Olds

This summer, my wife, my twin six-year-old girls and I took a road trip from Austin, Texas, to Ventura, California, and back. Before we’d even left the house, one of my kids had clearly stated her position against driving all the way to California and questioned, delicately and repeatedly, “WHY CAN’T WE JUST FLY?” First off, I’m not sure these words ever crossed my lips as a child. What few vacations we took when I was a child were all done within the loving, vinyl confines of the family Oldsmobile. Flying was reserved for heads of state and royalty as far as I was concerned. Second, how difficult can it be for a child to sit and be driven across half the country while watching videos, playing games, and occasionally looking up to see the beauty that is the southwest U.S. Either out of spite or stupidity, or both, my wife and I continued on with our plan to drive and, I must say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Here are a few tips if you too want to take an incredibly acceptable car trip with your young kids:

1. Ignore your children. Look, we all want to be great parents, but there are times when you have to give in and let video kill a few brain cells in the interest of the greater peace. For the first couple of years of our children’s lives, my wife and I stubbornly refused to put any electronic device in the backseat with our kids during road trips, feeling quite smug with our spartan approach to parenting. After two years of this, we’d become shut-ins. We were afraid to take even the shortest road trip for fear of the screaming, crying and even vomiting (from all the screaming and crying) that could ensue. Our vanity ultimately gave way to practicality, and we invested in a portable DVD player, and later, a tablet. Life hasn’t been the same since. We wouldn’t have attempted our long summer road trip without videos for the kids. Yes, I am aware there are stories of people surviving  car trips, steamer voyages, wagon trains, what have you, without a DVD player, tablet, or even cell phone, but those were dark days indeed. Children resorted to staring out windows, portholes or the backs of covered wagons to entertain themselves with their own thoughts, and inevitably the screaming, crying and vomiting (from all the screaming and crying) would begin.

For large, peaceful swaths of time on our trip, our kids put on headphones and watched movies and TV shows on the DVD player and tablet.  Occasionally, there was a demand from the back seat like, “Mommy, the movie is over,” or “Mommy, the movie is over,” or “MOMMY THE MOVIE IS OVAH!” This was the kids’ subtle clue that the movie they were watching was over and that, if it weren’t too much of a bother to their dear mother, they’d much appreciate a new movie being cued up. She’d do her duty, and quiet would resume for another hour or more. I know having these little electronic pacifiers for car trips is a luxury, and I know that watching 24 hours of video over a three-day period isn’t exactly the most nourishing thing for our children, but they sure seem much happier for it at the end of the day, and that makes me and their mom happy. We’ll deal with the detoxification at the end of the trip.

2. Stop ignoring your children. Alright, you’re not going to get away with completely ignoring the people in the backseat for three days. Eventually, if you’re like me, you’re going to want to check your kids’ pulses and turn off the videos. That’s why I packed some activities like Mad Libs, highway bingo cards, and math flash cards that we could do together, or at least that my wife could do with the kids while I drove. Granted, these activities lasted only so long before the girls started to turn pale and sweat from video withdrawal, but it was a good break for everybody and it helped the girls look up from the screen every few hundred miles. For the less interesting activities (ahem, flash cards), I did what I like to do at home and brought some candy to reward the girls when they were able to get a few correct answers in a row. There’s no shame in bribery if it buys even 10 minutes of actual family interaction and brain engagement.

3. Don’t be afraid to stop, then don’t be afraid to go. At my wife’s suggestion, we tried to stop every two hours or so, even if it was just to stretch and straighten our spines. I would typically plan ahead for the day’s drive to find towns or rest stops along our route that looked like good candidates for a pit stop. This generally saved us the headache of passing one town only to find that the next available place to stop was another hour away. Of course, you’ve still got to be flexible because you can’t plan for surprises like the inevitable requests for bathroom breaks that seem to come about 90 seconds before detonation.

In our case, we had to be careful not to overdo our pit stops. Before we had kids, my wife and I would have been tempted to take our time with our stops, maybe even soak in some Americana on our way. Now that we have kids, our primary goal is to reach our destination with as little screaming and crying as possible, which for us meant not lingering at some of our stops along historic Route 66, and resisting the urge to stop at the Billy the Kid Museum or take a picture in front of the world’s largest muleshoe, which is located, conveniently enough, in Muleshoe, Texas. Obviously, if your kids love to take in the sites along the way, please feel free to ignore my advice. If, like me, you would have to drag your kids out of the car, prop them up in front of a giant muleshoe and force their mouth into something resembling a smile in order to get a picture showing what a great time you had on your road trip, I say step on the gas and don’t look back.

4. Fuel up. I’m not talking about the car, I’m talking about the people in the car. Even though we stopped frequently on our trip, two hours can seem like an eternity to a six-year-old. In our family, the number one leading cause of crankiness on any given day, much less on a long road trip, is hunger. So, we packed beef jerky, goldfish, apples, and granola bars, and we filled up water bottles for everybody each day before starting the next leg of our trip. Any time crankiness would come spilling into the front seat from the back, we’d throw some food at it and I think that helped us avoid major meltdowns in the car.

5. Listen carefully. When you’re on your way home, your kids have watched the same movie three times, and you don’t even have the energy to read a Mad Lib, try listening to one of two items that I’ve found can entertain everyone in our family: comedy albums and audiobooks. Comedy albums can be tricky. We’re not quite ready to expose our kids to George Carlin or Richard Pryor, but there are some comedians you might find acceptable for your young kids’ ears. We listened to my old Brian Regan Live album on our way back home and laughed until our sides hurt. You can also find plenty of kids’ audiobooks in Audible and iTunes. During our last couple of road trips, we’ve listened to books from the Who Was … series, including Who Was Emilia Earhart and Who Was Eleanor Roosevelt. These books aren’t the most complex biographies you’ve ever read or heard, but our children really enjoyed them, and they were interesting enough for us parents, too.

I’m sure everyone who has taken a long family road trip has their own ideas for how to make it go smoothly. If you have any of your own, please feel free to leave a comment. I need all the tips I can get for my next road trip, which I should probably start preparing my airplane-loving daughter for now.