Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
We're planning a family road trip — about 7 hours each way plus pit stops — and I'm dreading keeping our 4-year-old and 7-year-old out of each other's way in the back seat. If left alone more than a few minutes they tease, argue and worse. My husband will be doing the driving and he tends to bellow at them if their noise gets too loud (which I don't doubt it will in such close quarters). Any advice here?
Too Close For Comfort
Planning around the children's needs is the best way for everyone to have a good time on a family trip. Let's start with timing. Pit stops for children need to be more frequent than for an adult. Their need for movement is much greater than ours. Pick out several points of interest along the way — even roadside picnic places — for stretching legs. Even better would be a playground with swings and climbers. Pack a Frisbee or ball in case you find a park where a game of catch would make sense (not near cars!).
Stopping to eat is a nice break from the road, not to mention keeping drips and crumbs out of the car. Time your meals and a snack or two around the children's regular schedule. This will help to keep them in a good mood.
Some families time their road trips to include time for children to sleep — either late night or early morning. Your children might get a kick out of traveling in their pajamas.
Besides thoughtful timing, a good family road trip should keep children's entertainment needs in mind. While an adult can easily consume hours of road time with thoughts or conversation, children need more "hands-on" activities. Help them choose things that travel well — things that don't have a lot of loose pieces or possibly distract the driver. Think twice about bringing expensive electronic entertainment since each pit stop is a chance to lose it. If they're not prone to motion sickness, your children might enjoy bringing books to look at or read.
You may be surprised to learn that just a couple generations back (when I was a tyke during the Baby Boom), families entertained themselves in the car WITHOUT toting a lot of extra stuff along. Try some of these:
Sing songs. The most fun are "fill in" songs such as "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" in which each person takes a turn to add the next verse. MacDonald can also have a body shop, or pizza parlor, or any enterprise likely to invoke lots of verses for all the things that could make noises here, there, and everywhere. Do your children know "Down By They Bay?" With this song, each person takes a turn to name an animal and an action that rhymes with it. You can learn Down By the Bay on YouTube. If your 4-year-old finds this too challenging, he or she can just name an animal and you fill in the rhyme.
Look out the windows. A popular pursuit while you're stuck in the car is to spot the alphabet on signs. The 4-year-old might stick to letters in his or her name while the seven-year-old can alternate with you hunting for all the letters from A to Z. Both children will be challenged by finding colors of the rainbow, with the 7-year-old keeping track of the order. If driving conditions allow, the children can look for faraway states on license plates. License plates from different states can entertain and educate the 7-year-old. You can join him or her in a game of interpreting interesting personalized plates (there's a Maryland plate – C U N O C – suggesting the occupants spend time at our state's most popular beach).
Guess answers. Play "I Spy" by describing an object within everyone's sight with one clue at a time. Traditionally this starts with the item's color, as in "I spy with my little eye something yellow." Play "Twenty Questions" with the rule that the person who chose the item can only respond with "Yes" or "No." The traditional way to start is with "Is it animal?" "Is it vegetable?" or "Is it mineral?" The goal is to guess the answer within 20 questions.
Dance (to a degree). Even buckled in, there should still be enough wiggle room for passengers to dance to some good tunes. Bring along favorite dancing CD's or enjoy fishing for local radio stations along your journey. If there's no music to be found, you can always resort to songs with hand and body motions. Try "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" going faster and faster, then quieter and quieter. And the old standard "Hokey Pokey" is good and silly, which should be part of the mission of this trip. Enjoying some fun as a family. That's what it's all about.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her "Understanding Children" columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.