It’s the time of year when many families take to the road, going home for the holidays. It’s the time of year when my inbox is full of letters seeking advice for how to stay sane while traveling with young kids. For too many parents, getting there is so stressful that every year they promise themselves they’ll never, ever, go visiting again. Then Christmas comes around, nostalgia for home sets in, and they’re back in the car. By the time they arrive at their destination, the kids are in meltdown and the adults are fried. Not a pretty picture.
Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. Young children can be taken on very long car trips with a minimum of stress and a maximum of family togetherness. The secret is simple: To travel with kids, travel in the “kid zone.”
Young kids are little bundles of energy curious, active, and distractible. Attention spans are short. Bladders are small. Coop them up in the back seat with little stimulation except passing cars and it’s only normal for them to wind up.
Traveling in the kid zone means accepting and working with your children’s developmental ages and stages. With good planning and pacing, car trips can become the stuff of happy family memories. Fighting children’s legitimate needs guarantees that everyone will end up fighting.
At rest stops, I always can tell which parents are in the “kid zone” and which think that kids can just be folded into adult schedules: Parents in the kid zone are taking their time. They walk around with their kids, pointing out sights and providing commentary. They get everyone a drink. They make at least two trips to the bathroom. If the weather allows it, they take out a Frisbee or ball and play for awhile. They find an area where no one will mind if they jog around a bit and whoop and holler. Everyone goes to the bathroom one more time. Finally, everyone piles back in the car.
Contrast that with the family in pre-meltdown mode: The adults are grumpy. They don’t talk to the kids except to correct them, take their food order, or grunt. Any conversation is between the adults. They hurry the kids through the bathroom. They hurry them through their snack. They hurry them back into the car. They are so intent on “making good time” that no one is having a good time at all.
I know which car I’d want to ride in.
- Do as much as you can ahead of time. If you do nothing else, plan so that you can leave calmly. Leaving calmly sets the tone for the trip. Are you expected to bring something for the holiday dinner? Make it a week or more ahead and pop it in the freezer, then transfer it to your picnic cooler before you leave. Pack the car at least a day ahead. That lets you focus on the kids instead of your stuff when you are trying to get out the door.
Travel when the kids are asleep. Put the kids in pajamas or sweats and leave late in the day. Drive for a couple of hours, stop for dinner, then settle everyone in to sleep. Most kids are lulled by the darkness and the hum of a car. Make sure one parent takes a long nap before leaving so that he or she can spell the other driver when it gets late.
If you’re on a long trip, you can carry the kids into a hotel room at 2 a.m. and they’ll sleep at least until 6:00 a.m. One parent gets up with the kids and takes them to breakfast while the other gets some more sleep and then it’s on the road again. Alternatively, go to bed with the kids at 7 or 8 p.m. Set your alarm for 2 a.m. Load sleepy kids into the car and you get at least four hours of travel time before they fully awaken and you stop for breakfast.
Bring comfort toys and “loveys.” A favorite blanket and pillow, a stuffed animal, and favorite toy act as familiar anchors when kids are feeling unsettled by a trip.