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Road Trip!

June 26, 2013 - Betsy Bethel
It's family vacation season. According to AAA, 41 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles during the Independence Day holiday next week, and of those, 84 percent will travel by car.

Our family has trekked the 10-12 hours to North Myrtle Beach most summers since I was a baby. We have continued the tradition with our daughter, making our first trip with her when she was 4 months old. I still have the psychological scars from that one. Suffice to say, it was the first and last time we employed the "drive-through-the-night" method. It works for some families; it nearly destroyed ours!

The next time we went, she was 4 and armed with a DVD player and her handy-dandy VTech camera on which she could both record the passing mountains and valleys and play games. Within an hour, she had coloring books, dolls, stuffed animals and snacks strewn all over the back seat. By the time we got there, if either my husband or I had been asked one more time to retrieve a dropped water bottle or a crayon that had been launched across the car, we may have committed hari-kari. At 5, it was much the same scenario. The blessing during that trip was that somewhere in North Carolina, she fell asleep, just prior to the onslaught of an enormous thunderstorm, which would have scared her to death.

Last year, despite all the in-car entertainment, plus games of I Spy, spot the state license plate and I'm going on a picnic, about two hours prior to reaching our destination Emma was done. Of course, we all were. The "Are we there yet"s and "How much longer"s became increasingly annoying the closer we got to our destination. My husband was driving, and because we wanted to spend our vacation at the beach and not in some remote North Carolina hospital following his head exploding, we shut Emma down. She was not allowed to utter a word for an entire hour. Our hope was she would fall asleep, which she did not. She did stay quiet, though, for which I was grateful because I had no idea what we would do if she didn't. I mean, I had nothing. I surely wasn't going to ground her from the beach or pool, or take away the games and toys that heretofore kept her quiet. And you can't leave a kid on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, or, well anywhere for that matter. There are laws.

This year, I got smarter. Although it took me a couple hundred miles to realize it, I finally figured out that perhaps when she incessantly asked "How much longer?" (which she began when we were still in Belmont County), she wasn't doing it to drive us crazy. Maybe, just maybe, she really wanted to know. I made her a deal: Ask in a normal tone, and I won't get exasperated; I'll simply answer the question, in a normal tone. What a concept! (Daddy wasn't completely on board, but he survived.) Later, she asked to have the "compass," also known as the GPS, so she could keep track of our progress herself. Why didn't I think of that?

What I DID think of was having a special treat to use as an "incentive" if she became unbearable toward the end of the trip, a la last year. When she inevitably began the telltale downhill slide with two hours to go, I produced a giant lollipop and told her if she refrained from whining for one hour, it was all hers. I didn't even care that it was nearly supper time -- as a mom, you make these kinds of judgment calls all the time. That's why it's better not to judge other moms -- you never know what's really going on in someone else's family. Because Emma could now tell time, I told her at what time she would earn her reward, and she was fairly pleasant for the whole hour. After her (and my) success, her mouth was then otherwise occupied for the next hour, and by then we were nearly there!

Here are some other road trip tricks I've either employed or heard about over the years:

1. Present the kid(s) a new toy, movie or book when the going gets tough. You have to know just when to spring this trick on them. Too early and they'll tire of it before you know it. Too late and they will be too far gone to be appeased.

2. Stop at a rest area and let the kids stretch their legs every couple hours. It's a good idea for the parents, too! Head, shoulders, knees and toes; jumping jacks; tag; even yoga in the grass -- whatever works! If it's raining, look for a fast-food joint with an indoor play area. Even 10 minutes of physical activity can benefit by improving mood and blood circulation. Sorry, parents, you're not allowed on the slides. (Unless, of course, you're retrieving an entrenched 2-year-old who refuses to leave.) And don't forget the antibacterial gel!

3. Snacks, snacks, snacks and more snacks. Arm yourself with everything from blueberries to cheese sticks to popcorn to Twizzlers. Be sure to pack perishables in a small cooler. Give your children easy access. We are a hungry family when we hit the road, and bringing inexpensive snacks and drinks are both life- and money-savers. Just don't be mad if the kids aren't hungry when you stop for lunch! (But chances are, they will be.) Oh, and you probably ought to bring some extra plastic grocery sacks just in case their full bellies object to roller-coaster back roads.

4. Engage the kids in games based on your surroundings. It passes the time and brings the family together. Plugging into books and movies is fine for awhile, but this is, after all, a FAMILY vacation. We like road trip bingo (although our cards are currently AWOL) and I Spy. Another one we've played since I was a kid is the alphabet game, in which you have to find words (on billboards, road signs, vehicles, etc.) that begin with each letter in succession. You can play as a group or each person can play and see who gets to Z first. My mom also taught us a horse game she and her sister played with their mom and dad on road trips in the 1940s and '50s between Cleveland, where they grew up, and their grandparents' house in Bethesda. Called Zippity Zip, the object was to reach a predetermined score by spotting horses in the fields. Each variety of horse had a point value, and you yelled "Zip" when you saw one. And if you spied a field of 10 or more, "Zippity Zip!" — you automatically won the game.

I know every family has road trip tricks that work for them. What are some of yours?


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