We drive a lot. It is a function of our life. Up until recently, we lived rural and needed to drive an hour for groceries. Our friends and family are scattered across three provinces. Their grandparents live four and six hours away. Their one set of cousins live twelve hours away. To put a number to ‘a lot’, in two and a half years we have put just almost 120 000km on our vehicle.
We don’t have a DVD player in our car. We don’t own iPads, and the phones are for adults only. So how do we make it in the car for such obscene amounts of time and stay sane?
Let me first tell you, no-screen roadtrips are not easy. Having 1980’s strict screen parameters is 100% harder than handing them a screen and then retreating into silence. To be fully attentive to their needs, constantly monitoring their happiness and hunger, and talking to them a lot is a commitment. (Arguably, this constant vigilance to a child’s well-being is what a parent signs up for at the birth of their child. Car or not, parenting is not an easy endeavor.)
But it’s worth it. Screens have been linked to short attention spans. Talking with them and being attentive increases their attachment.
Here are my best tips to make it through long car rides with no screens.
1. Make yourself happy
You set the tone and the mood for the road trip. Children naturally feed of the emotions of the adults around them. If you are grumpy, so will they be. That is the worst road trip. So make yourself happy.
Have your special snacks and drinks within hand-reach. Wear your comfy clothes, or your power-parent clothes. Set the temperature and play the music you want. If I have chocolate, coffee with lots of cream, mints and Mumford and Sons, I am the happiest road tripper.
That said, you will probably not be happy the whole time. Refer to tip #9 below.
2. Make sure they know how long it will take
Kids feel safer when they know what to expect. Whenever we get into the car, even if it’s just groceries, used to be 60 minutes of driving before we got to where we were going. But that’s a big difference from the grandparents 6 hours away, and their cousins who live 12 hours away.
We tell time in Paw Patrols. They have all sat through Paw Patrols enough to be able to roughly feel how long one is. (We have watched all the episodes on Netflix. Maybe more than one time.) Ignoring that one episode is 23 minutes and not 20, it is 3 Paw Patrols in 1 hour. So when going to the one grandparents it is 18 Paw Patrols. Going to their cousins takes 36 Paw Patrols.
I have never heard that annoying, “Are we there yet?” They will ask how many Paw Patrols are left. (They cheered when there were 18 Paw Patrols left on the way to their cousins.) And once they ask, they’re good to keep driving. They know what to expect.
If they start complaining about why Paw Patrols are so long, tell them you would rather not be driving either. You’re all in it together through all the Paw Patrols.
3. Make sure you talk to them
Road trip time is not your time. Some of it will be naturally when they are playing well together or sleeping. Soak in that alone time that comes, and it feels like it’s just you and the open road.
But you need to put in effort. You kids want to talk to you, not always listen to your podcasts or the silence you need. Engage with them. I have a super-important post full of great ideas about talking to your kids here.
4. Make sure they have their stuff
We make sure they have their bunny, blankie and water right beside them. We also pack a bag of books, and a bag of toys that we keep within reach. The toys are not big, but rather, little figurines (Incredibles, dinosaurs, cars, princesses, horses, small tongs, etc) in a sack to encourage imaginary play. If it’s close to snacktime, we make sure they have food next to them.
5. Make sure you can help them
When they were younger I would always have the youngest behind the passenger seat so I could easily hand her a toy or Baby Mum-Mum when she started to fuss. My girls are getting more self-sufficient in the car, but they still need things sometimes.
A lot of helping is just being able to see them. Then I can coach them through how to help each other solve the problem they have. And also they have to learn that if they drop something I’m not going to stop the car in the ditch to get it for them.
6. Make sure you set a noise limit
We all have a tolerance of what noise we can handle. Find a healthy volume for everyone. That means if they scream, bang, clang, sing or argue above that internal noise limit, I intervene. We are all happier for it.
7. Make sure there is good music
We have a Girl Pack Playlist that we all love, even my husband. It’s a combination of sound we all enjoy. It goes from Miles Davis to the Sing soundtrack to Mumford and Sons to Katy Perry to Bob Marley to The Eagles to Sweatshop Union to Baby Shark and back again.
8. Make sure there are breaks
We will often choose to drive a little bit longer route to be able to stop and meet needs every 2-3 hours. Bathroom, snacks, gas, coffee. We all need it. And with practice, we have gotten quite efficient at family rest stops.
9. Make sure you have a good follow-through
Road trips are not one big moment of happy. There will be kid fights. Sometimes you will appear to be intoxicated because you are parenting through the rear-view mirror and the road in front briefly becomes secondary.
Road trips require boundaries with follow-through. They know I will pull over to intervene kid-fights. We’ve only had to do it a few times per kid, but that was enough for them to know we’re serious about it. Now, when they won’t stop the behavior by us asking a couple times, they will (most of the time) choose to stop when posed with, “Stop now or I’m pulling over.”
Good luck with your next no-screen roadtrip! I’m rooting for you!