How to survive a road trip with your kids

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By Christopher Elliott

About halfway through a 3,755-mile road trip from Orlando to Seattle, I had a little reality check. It happened a few minutes into an hour-long interview with an NPR show in Madison, Wis., when the topic swerved toward unruly kids in a car.

“What do you do when they don’t behave?” one caller asked.

For the first time since casting off, I was confronted with two undeniable facts on live radio: The three little snowflakes in the back seat of my car weren’t always perfect; and my methods of managing their behavior were, if nothing else, based on little more than instinct.

I hemmed and hawed my answer.

“Don’t make me pull this car over,” I remember saying. But my parents used that threat when we did our family road trips back in the 70s. Doesn’t really work.

Besides, my situation is somewhat different. Back then, there were two parents in the front seat commanding our every move. This time, there was only one. But also, instead of driving a 1978 Dodge Monaco station wagon with a nonworking air conditioner, I was lucky enough to be in an Infiniti QX80, thanks to Hertz, which sponsors my family travel blog. It had more room and the AC worked great. So it all kind of evened itself out.

I admit, my preferred coping mechanism is the “ignore” button. They start screaming and smacking each other around, and I tune out. Finally, after my oldest says, “Dad, do something!” I mutter, “Kids, don’t make me pull this car over.”

I’m so predictable.

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So, how do you keep the kids from starting World War III in the back of the vehicle?

Get real, parents

Maybe the first thing is to understand that your kids, no matter the age, are not snowflakes. Actually, we call each other “snowflakes” sarcastically, but some parents really feel as if their little offspring can do no wrong. But squeeze the child in the back seat for five straight hours, and Little Miss Perfect turns into a monster. I’ve seen my 10-year-old daughter lunge between seats because her 15-year-old brother, twice her size, had slighted her. Normally, she’d brush off the insult, but when you’re strapped into your seat and the desert sun is beating down on you through your window, you’re just not yourself. So parents, please don’t expect your kids to act like angels on the road trip. And don’t expect yourself to act like Parent of the Year. You’re setting the bar too high.

Feed them

If you do nothing else, remember this: feed your kids. Feed everyone in the car. It can be difficult to predict where you’ll be, let alone the dining options along the way. Buy a cooler. Stop by the grocery store before you leave. You’ll save a lot of money and spare your nerves. There is no legal way of calming a “hangry” 12-year-old. All reason goes out the window when you miss a meal. You have to be preemptive about it, pushing healthy snacks into their little hands before the situation spirals out of control. (Related: On this run through New Mexico, no shortage of space (and salsa).)

Play games

No, parents, not video games. I’m talking about real interactive games that keep the kids engaged with one another in a peaceful way during the road trip. Card games are a favorite for us. My daughter, for some reason, can’t lose at “Go Fish.” “I Spy” may be the most popular nonelectronic road game, but there are plenty of others. A meaningless exercise? Not really, because the games teach important interpersonal relationship skills. Also, they keep the kids from trying to push each other out an open window, or from getting bored.

Listen to music

In-car entertainment has come a long way since the 70s. If I remember correctly, our Dodge Monaco had an eight-track tape. The Infiniti offers a state-of-the-art sound system with satellite radio. When you’re on a road trip with kids for hours at a time, you can really start to explore the musical landscape. Our presets are eclectic, ranging from the reggae station, The Joint, to the disco station, to Studio 54. Classic tunes are great conversation-starters (“I remember when this song was popular.”) But they can also be conversation enders. How so? When an argument breaks out in the back seat, there’s no better way to distract the kids than with the mellow sounds of Bob Marley or an extended drum solo from the Grateful Dead.

Get them involved

Giving the kids a stake in the road trip can make a world of difference. They may not be able to make the big decisions, like where to go, but they can certainly make some of the little ones. For example, how do we get there? Where do we stop for lunch? What kind of groceries or snacks do you want to buy for the trip? The more empowered they feel, the smoother the trip. By the way, this works for adults, too. No one likes to be stuck in a car with a petty tyrant, dictating where you go, when you go there, how you get there, when you stop, and when you start again. And here’s why: When the passengers lose control, they start to fight among themselves. Give them a little decision-making ability, and they won’t fight as much.

Frequent stops — and a frisbee

The final rookie mistake roadtrippers make is failing to stop frequently enough. The driver needs to rest. And that’s not just me saying it. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift. But if you’re driving noncommercially, it’s not just the length, but the quality. Our family loves tossing around a frisbee when we’re at a highway rest stop, which helps stretch your legs and gets the blood flowing.

Planning a holiday is not easy. My advocacy team and I know that too well. The best part of our extended road trip is discovering that after all is said and done, we can get along in the car and outside of the car. After countless hours together, and after implementing some of these strategies, we’ve settled into a routine of driving, playing and resting. And if we can do it, anyone can.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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