Surviving a Road Trip with Five- and Nine-Year-Old Kids

When I threw the first leg of our family vacation into Google Maps, I sort of wanted to claw my own eyes out.

24 hours? With our kids?!

I love ’em. But they are active, talkative, and capable of driving normal people insane even outside a confined space. How were we going to make it and still love each other on the other side?

No surprise, the idea of spending days in the car with young kids is worse than actually doing it. Considering how much physical activity, vocalizing, and goofing off is part of their DNA, both of them were saints. Most of the issues we did have in the car were on my wife and I. We were too tired, too cranky, or too done to have the patience.

Road Trip Survival

We Planned for the Unplanned
Turns out, the secret to a being a successful parent is to run from one cluster to another with a big grin on your face.

Things are going to go wrong. And it’s O.K. Someone will need to go to the bathroom every ten minutes and Subway sandwiches are going to get spilled all over the car. I mean, I killed two dogs with our car and sent it to the mechanic for five days, and we still managed to have a great time, for god’s sake.

Our best days were the days we were able to remind ourselves that things will never go to plan, so we should stop expecting them to. And then reminding ourselves again when the train got off the tracks.

We didn’t book any hotels, so we didn’t feel like we had to rush or drive a certain distance every day. We just went. When we were ready to stop, we stopped. We taught the kids how to pee on the side of the road when the closest gas station was fifty miles away in the Moab Desert. We were mostly O.K. with things not going O.K., and honestly, that was the best thing we could have done.

Break it Up
There was no way we were driving from Des Plaines, Illinois, to Pine Valley, Utah, in one shot. That would have been a recipe for disaster. Our kids love to run around, and being cooped up in a car for that long wouldn’t have been fun.

So we allowed three days to get out to Utah, and two days to get back from Colorado. Our longest day was twelve hours, and most of the other “driving” days were under ten. It kept the trip manageable and let us see some pretty cool stuff along the way, because we weren’t worried about how much mileage we needed to knock out.

Our very first driving day we stopped at the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Anyone, anywhere, with kids needs to visit. Adults need to visit. It’s not really a museum at all – it’s a giant, eclectic playground. Bob Cassily and a bunch of local artists have been building this place organically for decades from salvaged and recovered materials. They turned an old shoe factory into something Willy Wonka couldn’t dream up. You could get absolutely lost for hours in this place, and it was a perfect way to kick off the trip. We drove nine hours the first day, but with a four-hour stop here in the middle, it felt like nothing.

What to Do
Proper expectations and breaks are all well and good – but we were still in the car for hours. That time has to get filled with something. I’ll never judge anyone for giving their kids and iPad or movies – being in a car that long is about survival.

But we found a nice balance between quiet things, loud things, things with screens, and things that don’t need batteries.

The first thing we did was incentivize “good” behavior. So, basically, not acting like a caged monkey on meth. Our kids are on a point behavior system normally. (Do something good? Get a point. Do something bad? Lose a point.) So we carried that over into the car. For every hour they did something quiet (no screens), they earned a point. It was our job to make sure they had access to quiet things. They brought library books. We read Charlotte’s Web out loud to them. They both brought those big school curriculum workbooks. And, of course, the scenery outside was worth staring at.

Our kids love to talk and sing, so we made sure we were prepared with games. Mad Libs, I Spy, and all sorts of variances on word association are all big hits. We’d make song requests, and they’d take turns singing that song, or tackle the Minecraft cover. We watched Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs fairly early in the trip, and they had a blast reciting their favorite lines over and over. And then over and over again.

With all that stuff to do, screens became a reward, or a release valve when Sandi and I just needed some peace and quiet. When the iPads came out, it was usually for an hour or two, and they typically came out once a day. Sometimes they played longer because we were at our wits end. Sometimes, they barely played at all. Like I said, being in a car that long is about surviving. You do whatever works, period.