“Are we there yet?” This may be the all-too-familiar call from children in the backseat. For less verbal little ones, however, this question may come in the form of an irritating whine or even a high-pitched scream. Sound familiar? There’s a reason that road trips—especially long ones—make some parents cringe in anticipation. The idea of being in a small enclosed space with one or more littles for long periods of time may seem overwhelming. As a mom of two little ones, I know this feeling well. My two-year-old and six-month-old daughters are not huge fans of their carseats, but they have already taken many car trips in their very short lives. As both a mom and a family therapist familiar with kids’ developmentally-appropriate abilities and interests, I’m here to offer a few suggestions that might make your road trips a little bit easier.
As adults, we have plenty of planning to do just for our own road trips: figuring out where to go, how long it will take, where to pit-stop, what to pack, what to bring in the car for our own entertainment or needs, etc. We spend a decent amount of time thinking about what we are about to take on. But because kids aren’t usually involved in the planning, sometimes they haven’t mentally prepared for a road trip. I can imagine I’d be pretty upset and confused if all of a sudden someone put me in the car without any warning, and I had no idea where we were going, when I was going to be able to eat or stretch my legs again, or how long it would take.
With that in mind, imagine what it might be like for our littles when we ask the same of them—especially when they have less patience, a greater urge to move, and crave predictability. Thus, when we’re planning for a road trip, it’s important to prepare these little people, too. Respect them by preparing them for the trip as you would an older child, or better yet, a friend. Talk to them plainly (even if they lack verbal skills) about the trip—where you are going, that it will take “a long time,” what will be required of them (sitting for a long period of time), and when they can expect breaks or snacks.
You can repeat this preparation in child-appropriate ways such as making a “book” about the upcoming experience; this can be as simple as drawing stick figures on pieces of paper and stapling them together. Act out the upcoming experience with their dolls or stuffed animals—let them be the parent or “in-charge” by telling their animals what’s going on while they pretend the animals are the children in the car. This helps the child feel ready for the trip; she knows from seeing it, hearing it, and acting it out what is going to happen. While this certainly doesn’t guarantee perfection, it helps set your child up for success on the long road ahead.
Make them the boss of something
Even very young toddlers (as young as twelve months) love to feel in charge. Give them a job that can work as entertainment for them, while also meeting their need for autonomy. Depending on their age and attention span, you can ask them to tell you every time they see a truck, or, with longer attention spans, every time they see a red truck. You can also put them in charge of actual jobs, such as asking them to point out when they see the next green sign (an exit sign) that you need to take. You can also ask them to be in charge of letting you know if it’s too hot or too cold in the car (within reason, of course). Even for pre-verbal toddlers, you can find a job that only requires them to point or indicate “yes” or “no” to you. Be creative, and find some little thing they can feel proud and in charge of along the ride.
Recently, on one of our longest road trips to date, my two-year-old daughter enjoyed pointing out all the green signs to help us “know where to go.” While it required my husband and me to engage with her more often, it was better than hearing whining, and it kept her occupied for a surprising amount of time. We also asked her to help keep an (age-appropriate) eye on her younger, five-month-old sister. We periodically asked her questions like, “Are Sissy’s eyes open? Is she resting?” And even, when our youngest cried, “Can you help us sing to her?” This helped keep our toddler occupied by making her feel empowered.
Use novel toys and books
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting you buy new books and toys. A few weeks (or even days) before your trip, start putting some toys and books that your child hasn’t used in a while or doesn’t play with much in a bag. If you have a plethora of these possessions and/or your child is young/pre-verbal, you may be able to do this without alerting or upsetting them.
If your little is older than 18 months and/or taking away toys or books would be noticeable, you may need to let your child know what you are doing. Simply tell her, “We are putting some toys and books in a bag for our trip.” You can enlist her help by asking, “Which two books and toys would you like to bring?” Asking for her opinion helps her feel empowered, while you are still in control of making the plans.
When a child hasn’t read or played with a book or toy for days or weeks, seeing it again will revive the novelty that it had when they first received it. Especially if it was a beloved item, seeing it again can reinstill excitement and the entertainment can last especially long. My toddler’s excitement about reuniting with some of her forgotten books and toys was so great it made me consider doing the same thing for Christmas. (Just kidding . . . maybe.) The key here is not to reveal all your cards at once. We kept a bag of novel toys and books (read: forgotten) in the passenger seat and whoever was sitting there would hand our toddler a new item once the novelty of the last toy had worn off.
Don’t underestimate the simple
While we think screens and blinking, beeping toys are the key to success for travel, sometimes entertainment for littles is much simpler than that. Whether it’s a simple toy like one that has multiple buckles (great for babies and toddlers of all ages!) or engaging with your child in fun conversation, littles are often more easily entertained than we give them credit for. Audio books (for kids, of course) and kids’ music (Cocomelon, anyone?) can enrapture children as well. Obviously, this means sacrificing what you want to listen to, but I’d rather hear kids’ music than whining or crying kids.
As we neared both the end of our rope and our destination, my husband and I started telling make-believe stories to our two-year-old in a last-ditch attempt to end the whining and “Are we there yet?” questions. To our surprise, she quickly quieted down, and when we stopped, all we heard was “more.” We made it fun for ourselves by making it into a game: when one of us would run out of ideas mid-way through a random story (chock-full of animals and make-believe, of course!), the other would pick up and keep the story going with their own twist. It became quite amusing for both us and our daughter and had us all laughing as we finally approached our destination.
Have realistic expectations
At the end of the day, there’s no magic solution that will make your toddler not a toddler or your baby not a baby. Babies still need to be fed and changed every few hours. Toddlers have an innate need to move and explore. It’s unrealistic to think that a toddler can sit still and be quiet for even an entire hour without engagement or entertainment, and even with that their patience will eventually expire.
Set realistic expectations for you and any adults traveling with you about what you will and won’t be able to do with littles on board a long drive. You’ll likely need to stop often for diaper changes or bathroom breaks (maybe more frequently if you have a recently potty-trained little). Realistically, you’ll probably have to stop every two to three hours to feed babies and younger toddlers. Even little kids whom you can safely feed in the car will need frequent stops to get out and move around. The more you can map out ahead of time any roadside parks and playgrounds (weather permitting) for every few hours of driving, the better.
As hard as it may be to do with littles, try to see the road trip as part of the journey. When you spend that much time together in a small space, you’re bound to make memories. Just remember that even the hard moments will likely be things you can laugh about later, and try to enjoy the ride.