The Secret to Keeping Kids Happy on Road Trips

On this last road trip out to California, our kids did an amazing job. They only whined once or twice over the ten hour drive and mostly self-entertained, keeping to their own space.

On the way home, they were a little awful. And it was my husband’s fault.


Kyle is an awesome dad. Unfortunately, every now and then his awesomeness actually gets in his own way and makes life crazier, like when he plans a playground outing ten minutes before bedtime or gives them ice cream with lunch and then can’t get nap time to go well. This particular story of awesomeness-getting-in-the-way goes like this:

On the way out to California, I packed the car and organized how the kids would travel. Each kid got a bottle of water, a blanket, an iPad, a set of kid headphones, and one small activity. For Eva, that meant a pad of paper and some markers, for Calvin it meant a paint-with-water brush and ABC card set. We also had a bag of snacks within reach, including a full box of crackers for each of them (sharing isn’t required on road trips) and emergency wipes for sticky fingers.


That might sound a little stingy for ten hours, but I wanted them to sleep for part of the time and I didn’t want the backseat to feel chaotic and crowded. Plus, it meant they spent part of the time looking out the window and talking to us about what was going on outside. (Or, in Calvin’s case, yelling out the letters he could see on billboards…a game that was cute twenty miles outside of Salt Lake City but a little old twenty miles past Sacramento…)

On the way home, however, Kyle put a few more things in the backseat. He had gone to Target while we were in Napa and he got all sorts of little toys and snacks to entertain the kids because he didn’t want them to have a bad ride. For some reason, Kyle connects long road trips with childhood torture and even as an adult it’s hard to drag him into the car. So, when we made our drive home, he presented the kids with coloring books, boxes of crayons, small plastic toys, new books, fruit smoothie pouches, etc., because he’s a nice dad who wants his kids to be happy.

Full confession: I totally had a premonition of what was going to happen but instead of saying anything, I let him give all the stuff to the kids and then got snappy with him post-implosion. I feel like that’s a very bad wife thing to do (saying “I told you so” when you did not, in fact, tell anyone anything) so I wish I had spoken up before he gave them the giant bag of stuff. Alas.

Anyway, the kids were crazy ten minutes into the drive. Crayons were everywhere, everyone had the wrong thing, Calvin was trying to murder a board book, and Eva couldn’t go 5 seconds without asking Kyle to help her with something. Finally, after two hours, the kids had reached critical mass, everyone was yelling, and I exited into one of those random Nevada towns and emptied the back seat. Each kid was reduced to one blanket only, since iPad privileges had been lost somewhere in the desert, and absolutely everything else went into the trunk.

Mean mom behavior? Maybe. We still had about six hours to drive and I’m sure they would have enjoyed the sticker books and light up toys that they hadn’t even gotten to yet. That being said, there is something to being trapped in a car surrounded by crap vs. sitting in a car where you have leg room and space to breathe. Even when you’re little.

When we got back into the car, Calvin fell asleep immediately. After a while, Eva fell asleep. They didn’t stay asleep for the whole drive back, but when they weren’t asleep they were looking out the window and being pleasant, either chatting with us or sitting quietly (even the baby).

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give kids anything to do on road trips, because I think that’s unrealistic since looking out the window for ten hours is tough even for adults. However, I really think the chaos should be kept to a bare minimum, both to keep the environment from smothering them and to let them soak in a little bit of the journey. It’s too easy, now, to anticipate a million bored minutes and try to fill them with external things (which is called “cruise directing” in our house and is strictly against mom’s policies) and I think that giving your kid a ton of stuff to do in the car tells them, “This is going to be so awful and you’re going to be so bored and I’m sorry.”

I loved car trips when I was little and I love them now. Trust your kids to love them, too, and they just might. Or, at the very least, they might not make you completely crazy before you reach your destination.


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The Secret to Keeping Kids Happy on Road Trips

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1 Comment

  • Reply Hope at Disneyland

    Bad Carly! You should’ve said something. lol That’s okay. Sometimes I do that too because I guess it helps for others to fail and see why they failed than have me tell them what could happen and have them not believe me. ;P I couldn’t last 10 hours in a car, so power to Calvin and Eva for being such troopers!

    July 28, 2015 at 9:09 pm
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