As a child, my parents used to back my brothers and me into the station wagon and drive from New Jersey to Montreal, and while I remember enjoying the first and last hour or so of the ride, the rest of it was not so fun: umpteen games of "I Spy" punctuated by my brothers playing with the windows and my dad threatening to turn the car around, my mom struggling with maps, our luggage flying off the roof to be lost forever somewhere in upstate New York, never-ending squabbles over who got to stretch out in the "way back." I was reluctant to cram our five kids into a car to recreate that kind of a journey.
But we took a deep breath and did it last week. We've just gotten back from a road trip to Washington, D.C., and while I was expecting chaos, it was surprisingly manageable.
Sure, we heard our fair share of “I want to get out!” from those strapped into car seats and “This is not my idea of fun” from sulky teens, and it goes without saying that all of the kids, from teen to toddler, asked "Are we there yet?" at least a couple times. But, unlike in the 1970s, we had technology on our side. Here’s how we kept the chorus of complaints at bay this time:
1.) Plenty of room. Smaller cars are more fuel efficient, but I’m willing to give up a few gallons of gas in order to have a more peaceful ride (also: you can't fit five kids and two adults in a Prius). We drove my husband’s gigantic Suburban. I balked, for a moment, until I realized that the price of diesel is about the same as the price of regular gas right now, and the truck’s diesel engine gets more miles per the gallon than does my Honda minivan. Pre-Suburban, we’ve actually rented a larger vehicle to let the kids have enough room to ride comfortably.
2.) Plenty of snacks. Pack individual lunchboxes for each child (a full meal plus a snack or two and an extra drink). It seems like a lot of extra work, but the moment one of your kids says she's hungry and then gets herself a snack without disturbing you or anyone else, it'll be worthwhile. Don’t forget the ice pack, and keep some treats (lollipops and fake fruit gummy things, in my case) hidden for doling out as bribes or rewards. (I know, there's plenty of options on the road, but I'm one of those who is reluctant to stray from the route and, with kids and food allergies to consider, I'm not a fan of fast food.)
3.) Some cool apps for your iPhone or iPod Touch. My husband is a NPR junkie, and the minute we cross the border from Massachusetts into Connecticut and he loses his favorite station, he starts twiddling with the radio, looking for his fix as the stations fade in and out. This trip, we hit the dead radio zone and I pulled up a great little live-streaming public radio app on my iPhone. Best of all: It was free.
4.) A portable DVD player and a bunch of DVDs. Not everyone will agree with me on this, and my parents certainly didn't hook up the Videodisc player in the car when we drove from New Jersey to Canada, but I let my kids watch videos on long car trips. I got my dual-screen DVD player at Target; the screens strap to the backs of the front seats, and they’re connected to each other so that two kids can watch the same movie. Important detail: Each screen has its own headphone jack, allowing my preschoolers to watch “The Wiggles” while my nearly 16-year-old listens to her iPod behind them without going crazy from the yummy yumminess.
5.) A power inverter. This handy contraption plugs into your car’s power source (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) and allows you to plug anything else into it using a regular plug. (Like my techno-speak?) The big reason for bringing one of these along is that you can recharge your cell phone or laptop or iPhone or whatever you don’t have a car adapter for.
6.) Non-electronic entertainment. Even with a power inverter, there’s only so much battery-powered entertainment you want to deal with. Stash a few new (or new-to-you) age-appropriate books for your kids in the car, and pull them out when the whining starts. Also bring blank notebooks and pencils – they’ll come in handy for anything from writing a short, silly story (each person in the car contributes a sentence, one person reads it out loud) to a game of I Spy where the players have to write down (or draw pictures of) what they see. Other excellent car-ride choices include Water Wow books (paint with water, let dry, do it again), finger puppets, and magnet boards.
7.) Pillows and light blankets. The air conditioning can make the car a little too chilly to nap, but if the car is warm, it can get too cozy to drive. A small pillow keeps kids comfortable in their car seats, and can be used for lumbar support if grownups need it.
Moms and dads, please share your tips and tricks before we hit the road again this summer: How do you make long car rides go more smoothly?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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