The best thing about growing up as the daughter of an Army officer was the large amount of travel we did as a family. In total, we moved eight times, road tripping across five states and two German provinces. While changing schools, friends, homes and countries so frequently was difficult, my folks did their best to involve my siblings and I in the moving process.
By involving my siblings and I and keeping us informed, the pains of moving were lessened. It felt less like something happening to us because we were a part of it all. Those times when they weren’t able to keep us as in the loop (some of my father’s moves during the 80s and early 90s were classified), the transition was markedly more difficult. The lessons learned from those moves left a profound effect on me, the way I experience travel, and the lessons (good and bad!) that I use with my family today.
Since our now seven-year-old son was a baby, we’ve been road tripping. The first road trip was from Brooklyn to Atlanta during a torrential storm when he was six months old and teething. While we were prepared, we were new parents winging it and things were a bit of a cluster fuck–but they did get better.
Trips up and down the East coast to visit family in South Carolina, Washington, D.C. and New York City have given us many opportunities to upgrade our adventure style and trips have become a pleasure. Parenting as a whole is a learning process and we’ve since learned some key lessons to make traveling with a little person an enjoyable adventure for everyone.
Prepare a Bag Just for Your Little Person
Aside from the usual diaper bag essentials, prepare a “fun bag” just for your little one—and for them alone. Filled with their favorite toys, books and stimulating items, position the bag within the reach of your child. This fosters independence, decision making and free will, while preventing you from constantly having to reach back for a new thing when they get bored.
If the Budget’s Right, Get a New Toy
Nothing keeps a kid’s attention like something new and shiny. My best friend travels overseas with her toddler about once every two months, and she swears by this idea. For the first leg of the flight, she’s guaranteed a pre-occupied little one. You’re guaranteed the same, just make sure it’s something that will capture their attention.
Neck Pillows for Everybody!
Sometimes, car seat neck supports just don’t cut it. When my son goes into bobble-head mode during long road trips, I’d get anxious and constantly re-adjust him, adding more stress to the drive. This Eric Carle Hungry Little Caterpillar plush does double-duty as a neck pillow and a toy! Win win!
As your child gets older, their participation in family adventures evolves. This is a great opportunity to foster independence and give them more “big kid” responsibility, as well as sneaking in some mentally stimulating skills and activities.
Google Maps is Your Friend
With a little pre-planning, you’ll never have to answer ‘Are we there yet?’ again. With older kids, have them map out your journey with Google Maps. Then have them follow along on electronic devices, or go old school and print out the directions or use a PAPER MAP—they still exist! Give them an official title, high lighters to mark how far you’ve come and how far there is to go and empower them to conduct ‘journey check-ins’ every few hours or as needed. This keeps kids occupied and makes them feel essential to the journey.
Upgrade Your Rest Stops, Because No One Likes Rest Stops
Dump the designated highway rest stops and find interesting local stops to get gas or stretch your legs along the way. Is there a farmer’s market nearby? A regional restaurants you should try? Any local, quirky museums? This allows you to take a break and stimulate your mind, as well as creating opportunities to discuss the experience you had.
Build a Road Trip Playlist and Give Everyone a Turn
How many times can you listen to “Let It Go” before you want to scratch your eyes out? Now, think about how it might make your kid feel the same listening to YOUR favorite music. Create a playlist as a family that includes a jam for and from everyone.
Decompress and Get Your Rest!
After a long trip, tension inevitable builds in your body and mind. It’s no different with kids. Now that you’ve arrived at your destination, be sure to decompress. Eat a good meal together, drink plenty of water to rehydrate. Take a walk or stretch to loosen up your muscles and joints. Take a nap or get a good night’s rest. Release the pressure and enjoy arriving safe and sound.
Above all else, road trips are an opportunity to create meaningful memories and build bonds with your family. You and your kids are guaranteed to be in a confined space together for a few hours, so make those hours count. By involving your kids in the planning and execution of your road trip, it truly becomes an adventure for everyone.