Family road trips are an American pastime as cherished as backyard BBQs and bouncy houses at birthday parties. Who doesn’t have a fond memory of riding in the back seat of their parents’ station wagon through the great wide open Southwest, the woods of the Northwest, or like my family, the endless concrete strip malls of the Eastern Seaboard? For parents though, these trips aren’t always magical and perfect and can involve a lot of stress.
A lot can go wrong on a road trip, or before it even starts. Keeping young children occupied and happy while strapped down into a seat for hours is even harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t exactly sound easy. Baby’s favorite toy will not help so long before baby launches it violently across the car in a fit of rage.
For parents new to road tripping or those who have just struggled and actually want to reach a destination while still liking their family, these are the tips I’ve learned road tripping up and down the country with my twins. Something must be going right because I’ve only had to replace one window broken by a thrown wooden puzzle so far.
When a toddler throws a tantrum right when you are trying to shove them into their seat, things can get dicey before you even start the car. I’m no stranger to the full back arching tantrum and locked limbs right as I’m trying to buckle the straps. It’s hard enough to get a child in the seat normally; sometimes I wish my legs could bend so much every time I fly. When one of our boys is doing their best exorcist impression, I like to respond to it with my best Steven Seagal and tickle the back of their knees until they plop right back down into the seat.
Sometimes, nothing you do seems to matter and your kid will just scream and scream in the backseat for miles and miles and across state lines. A toy will only help so long and the pacifier is already on the floor. No amount of Goldfish or Cheerios helps either at this point, it’s time to bring out the big guns and start up the children’s music and scream sing it. Whether it’s Kidz Bop, Disney tunes, or if your day care has a music app like mine, connect with Bluetooth and get the singalong started by channeling the singer you were born to be who only comes out during late night karaoke or that one time you went to see Mamma Mia! If you don’t sound like that car commercial with “Sweet Caroline,” you aren’t trying hard enough. At least if it doesn’t work you’ll barely hear over your rendition of “Old MacDonald.”
Something’s funky in the neighborhood and it doesn’t smell good? Crank down the windows and seek the next fast food stop.
Everybody poops, just like the book tells us. It doesn’t tell us that tiny children make horrid war-crime level biological weapons the minute they get in the car. My twins can go hours at home without a diaper change but the minute we start moving, it smells like New York City’s subway on a sweltering hot summer day in the car. Sure, you can pull over and change a diaper in the trunk with your kid’s stuff hanging out for the word to see, but once they are a teenager, they’ll remember this right in the middle of therapy. Instead, crank the windows down all the way, even in the middle of winter, blast the heat and heated seats if needed, and find the first fast food restaurant you can to change and dump the diapers.
Kid tells you they don’t feel good and immediately projectile vomits all over the back? Use a Costco sized box of wipes and search Amazon for the top-viewed air fresheners.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but that smell is never going to go away completely. One morning after two weeks of tantrums in the car, we decided to try giving the boys milk on the way to school. Never try this. The resultant puke bomb covered the car seat and back seat. Even after an entire jumbo box of wipes and running the fabric of the car seat though the washing machine twice, our car still smells like expired cheese and not the tasty soft French kind. The only thing that has helped at all and made our drives bearable is several of the top-reviewed air fresheners from Amazon, express delivered. You can even have these delivered to a hotel during a car trip.
Have to stop to answer nature’s call but don’t want to disturb sleeping kids? Find a bottle or practice your running.
Our kids sleep pretty soundly. I have twice vacuumed their bedroom while they slept. But when they are in the car asleep, if you stop moving for any reason, they instantly awake. On a recent car trip up to Maine, I desperately had to go but the boys were asleep. Naturally, they decided to sleep for hours, so holding it was no longer an option. Instead, my wife switched over to driving slowly along the shoulder while I took care of business and then ran to the car. Alternatively, for drives that go past rest stops, one parent can circle the large parking lot while the other uses the restroom. We all must make sacrifices.
Sometimes a child will decide to arbitrarily throw a toy that is keeping them happy out of the car seat and to that awesome area between the back seat and the door that no adult sized human can reach into. Even more impossible is reaching this area while belted into the front seat. Sure, you could unbuckle, stand on the seat, do your best bridge position over the center and into the back, all the time with cars whizzing past and honking at you for your posterior sticking up in the back window, but that would be illegal and unsafe. I’ve clearly never had to do that before. A safe option is getting one of those claw grabber sticks so that you can safely reach back and find the toy, along with some loose change and a melted chocolate bar you forgot about two years ago.
Are We There Yet? isn’t just a great movie with Oscar-award-deserving actor Ice Cube. It’s also a phrase parents are likely to hear constantly on long trips. If your kids are constantly pestering you about when you’ll arrive and why you’ll do, try a VR headset. Sure, the motion may cause some nausea, but at least you’ll know how to take care of the vomit already. With VR, you can show them your destination and the sights you’ll see. They may even pick up enough to guide you once you arrive and begin touring. You’ll save on the tour guide! If VR doesn’t work or a headset is too expensive, you can also try giving them a guidebook. On a recent trip to New Hampshire, our boys stayed busy and quiet for almost an hour by shredding the pages from a brand new guidebook we didn’t even realize they had.
You want to listen to something other than children’s music but your child has other ideas. Confuse them.
When I want to listen to 90s hip hop or a Steven King novel audiobook—I have diverse tastes—that I know aren’t exactly suitable for 1-year-olds, I bump up the playback speed, or find the kid friendly versions. For books, I like 3x speed. I can still understand the narration, but my kids think it sounds like chipmunks and laugh along, even when the content might be about a killer clown living in the sewer. For music, there are actually kid-friendly versions of most of the big hits. “Fudge the Police” is super fun for kids and you’ll enjoy trying not to sing the real words.
They say it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. That’s really only true for parents who are prepared for things to go wrong on the journey. As long as you’re prepared for it, you can make it through even the longest cross country car ride with temperamental kids. There’s not much you can do about kids kicking your seat the whole way, but at least you won’t have to deal with screaming. And, as most parents know, anything is better than flying.
Tyler Lund is the founder and lead contributor to Dad on the Run. Tyler is a software development manager, tech nerd, home-brewer, 3-time marathoner, and rescue dog owner. Tyler loves traveling to new and unique places a bit off the beaten path and sharing stories from these adventures. A foodie with a taste for the unique, Tyler enjoys trying anything new.