The week has been a checklist of “leaving town” to-dos: Andy, the Most Literal Person in the World, needed to be trained in the CMS to cover you at work. Pookie didn’t have the right kind of gluten-free treats for dog boarding. The date night dress was at the cleaners – you remembered after you tossed the whole house looking for it. The kids’ teachers needed to be notified they wouldn’t be in class next week with an official dated form letter, signed in blood. You go to print it and, of course, the printer was out of ink, and Staples, Office Depot and the nine other stores that carry the special ink for your 1990s-era home printer are out of business. Then the girl who was supposed to feed the cats won tickets for a cruise last minute and opted to take it over this sweet minimum wage gig you offered her. She’s taking all her friends from the neighborhood, too. No one can feed the damn cat. You go to four more stores looking for an automatic feeder.
Finally, the morning of the trip arrives. You wrangle everyone through an extra early routine, find the shoes you accidentally packed so they can put them on, slug down the coffee, pack all the toiletries everyone just used and try not to forget the deodorant this time (because that really stunk last time), and you’re off. The kids are quiet for a minute.
For a minute.
And then it happens.
You know what. That thing.
“ARE WE THERE YET?!”
As a sane, rational human being with no wish to prolong the hell that is “going on vacation” you reach for the Tablet Bag, filled with the promise of sweet, hot, quiet time while noise-controlled headphones hypnotize your children. They’ll be zonked in a land of Marios and Pokemons within seconds. You’ll get to stare out the window for awhile. Think of nothing. Definitely not think of Andy screwing up your social media grid. Just pretty. Happy. Trees.
Maybe you’ll listen to a little music NOT by Taylor Swift.
Your fingers extend, groping around into the abyss below the car seat-suspended sneakers... and...
There’s nothing there. No. No. No.
The coffee finally hits your bloodstream and a conversation drifts onto the edge of your exhausted mind. The kids need to unplug. This needs to be a real family experience. We all need to be present.
Who said that crap?
What kind of hippy dippy essential oil were you smoking?
Frantically you think about telling Joe to turn the car around. It’ll only take twenty minutes. Surely that won’t make a huge difference. But then what kind of mother are you that you can’t go on one road trip with your kids without scrambling their brains on an iPad? People used to have to do this all the time. This used to be what family vacation was. Surely you are at least as capable as your grandparents. Grandma Bailey didn’t even graduate seventh grade. You have a Master’s degree for chrissakes. You can DO this.
MOM! I SAID ARE WE THERE YET?!”
Yes, mom, you can do this. And you’ll be rewarded for it. Maybe not in the moment – maybe good music and/or long periods of silence would have been much more pleasurable in the short term. But you can’t make memories with your kids that you will talk about for holidays to come if you’re all zonked out on different screens. That’s not a judgment on when you DO need that time, it’s just common sense.
So how do you do it? Obviously the memories aren’t going to be good if the kids are hot, bored and ornery the whole time, and you and dad are yelling at them to stop pulling each other’s hair and making gross noises. There has to be some entertainment. But the goal is to have them be distracted and engaged rather than just distracted.
Here are some strategies to keep this road trip rolling with minimal bloodshed and maximum Griswold Family Fun:
- Road Trip Games – For younger kids this is easy. I Spy is a classic for the super young who can’t read yet. Also rhyming games, even if they make up words to rhyme, that can be pretty silly. As they get older and more verbal, amp up the rhyming and maybe play an alphabet game where you go around in a circle and list off things like animals that start with each letter. This is a fun game even when they get older, but then the categories can be action movies or books you have read. The license plate game is also a classic, especially when you are driving during a busy holiday rush. And if you plan ahead and grab a Mad Libs pad, the whole family will be in stitches. These are just a few ideas. The Internet can give you more.
- Pack Snacks – There are going to be lulls and hangry moments that you don’t want to stop for. Snacks can revive weary souls and provide a transition between games when you are all getting tired and bored of the last one. Plus they can be fun.
- Books on Tape – This might not seem like the most intuitive way to have social time with your kids, but you are all sharing an experience together and taking it in with the same surroundings, and it will give you something to talk about later during travel stops. You can talk about your favorite parts, which words really made you think and who your favorite characters were. The important thing (and super-hard thing) is to find something you can all get into, and preferably something that none of you have heard or read before. Reader’s Digest has an excellent list for family audiobooks that you can find here. Also, this particular activity means you still DO get a little quiet time.
- Taking Turns Picking Music – This can get wearisome if you are all picking a single song but also if each turn goes on too long. Something fun to keep that in check can be that you have to pick entire albums or hit shuffle on Spotify for 5 songs by an artist of each person’s choosing. You’ll hear songs you never heard before and mock the really bad ones. Well, you will mock them. Your kids will probably adopt them as their new jams and sing them for the rest of the trip.
- Active Stops – You are going to have to take bathroom breaks anyway, try to work in some short family fun that gets the blood pumping. Maybe a quick hike on a local trail you researched beforehand. Maybe a convenience store scavenger hunt. Maybe a little yoga or stretching in a public park. With younger kids you could play red light/green light, freeze tag and hold quick races. Or you could take the easy route and find a playground. For a little more inspiration, check out this list from Wired.
- Activity Stops – Not to be confused with the above, this is about visiting places along the way. Think World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Here’s a list of small towns with big things.
- Quiet Time – This is another one that doesn’t seem social and maybe isn’t as much, but it gives you all a chance to recharge, think about things in your lives, notice the scenery passing by outside the car window. It’s Slow Travel 101. Boring in excess, but relaxing and revitalizing in moderation. With younger kids, it might be helpful to make it the Quiet Game officially. Older kids will probably know what’s up.
The point is, with a can-do attitude and a little Googling (preferably ahead of time) you can implement a lot of simple strategies on your road trip that just might keep you all sane long enough to enjoy each other. So ride on, Mama Road Warrior. Andy is probably dropping the ball at your desk as we speak, but you got this.