By Eric Braun
My boys may be getting older—14 and 12—but they still maintain their youthful vitality when it comes to bickering like toddlers. They do have a bit of a higher tolerance for each other now, though. We’d made it five hours into our eleven-hour road trip before it started.
“Hey, quit it!”
“Well you always—”
“Well you never—”
“Don’t touch the—”
“Okay!” I said, eyes on the road, fists affixed tensely to the wheel.
I knew it was too much to expect that they’d both sit silently for the entire day. But for some reason, I was blindsided by the sudden eruption. Thinking quickly, I offered the auxiliary cord between the seats.
“One of you DJ for us for a while.”
My 12-year-old eagerly stuck the cord into his phone and began to play his favorite Beatles tunes while his older brother retreated to his earbuds and book. Crisis averted.
It’s not always that easy, I know. If your kids are younger, you may even be rolling your eyes. But the fact is that by this point of the summer, many families have spent a lot of time together. Siblings of all ages can get on one another’s nerves. Even adults get tired of their kids after too much exposure. (Admit it.) It’s a full-time job keeping everyone sane and having fun. This is especially true if your kids are younger than mine, who by now have relatively well-developed skills for coping with anger, frustration, and annoying sibling syndrome. And it’s especially-especially true if you’re going to be spending a lot of time together in a small space like a car, hotel room, tent, etc.
So, here are a few helpful hints to help you keep the grrrr out of your next family trip:
- Pack snacks. This is parenting 101, of course, but it’s easy to forget if getting ready for a trip is as nutty for you as it is for us. We’re always scrambling at the last minute to pack the cooler, download directions, load the back of the stationwagon like a Tetris screen, double-check that we have sunscreen, go pee one last time!, and so on. Amidst all that, remember to pack something everyone can munch on to boost the blood sugar and distract from the tedium.
- Pack stuff to do. This is also pretty basic, but it too can get lost during preparations. Kids can take books, travel games, notebooks and pens or crayons, Mad Libs, and electronics if you have them—mp3 players, DVD players, and so on. Play an audiobook on the car stereo and you not only pass the time together, you also create a collective family memory.
- Pack wet wipes. Because nothing brings out the grrrr like grrrrape jelly on the fingers. Or seat. Or clothes. Or brother. You get the idea.
- Set spending plans ahead of time. Will the kids get to pick out one souvenir at the museum? Will they be spending their own money? Maybe you’re packing meals, but they can buy their own snacks. Maybe they can get one sugar-free drink at the gas station, but no pop. Whatever the case, establish it ahead of time so there’s no bargaining—or fighting—in the heat of the moment.
- Give kids a say in what you do. For example, when planning the trip, show them the map and say, “There’s a cool cave tour over here and a water park hotel over here. We might not be able to do both if we spend two days at the lake campsite. What would you prefer?”
- Give kids other responsibilities, too. Have them DJ in the car. Ask them to help navigate and sort cash for road tolls. If you’re bringing pets, let a kid be in charge of supplies and rest stop breaks. Older kids can be in charge of writing (or blogging!) a bit about each day or destination so you’ll all remember it.
- Leave room for spontaneity. Definitely plan ahead and set a budget, but if an unexpected opportunity for fun pops up, go for it. This is less about avoiding discord than it is about seeking harmony. You’ll rarely regret the extra time you took to wade in the creek or go through a corn maze—even if it makes you late for dinner.
- Put sleep in the itinerary. This is not just for kids. Being road warriors makes all of us weary, so plan for early bedtime, allow for late mornings, and remember: Naptime doesn’t just happen; you’ll have to plan for it.
- Be present. Travel time is all about being together. When we engage fully with our kids, they’re likely to behave better than they do in “normal life.”
- Remember that the journey is the destination. You don’t have to see every inch of the city or stay for every minute of the tour. If kids are getting tired, feel free to call it a day. It’s better to miss some sights and feel good about the trip than to have exhausted squabbles and meltdowns as your main memories.
When all else fails, put on some Beatles.
Eric Braun is a writer, editor, and road-tested dad living in Minneapolis.
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