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May 23, 2019

What I Learned from 40 Hours in a Car with My Kids

Contributed by Alison Tweedie, Education Specialist

Last week we took our first major family road trip from Niagara Falls, New York to Hilton Head, South Carolina for my brother’s wedding.

My husband is the planner, so he mapped the route and took care of all the pre-travel organization, prep and car maintenance as well as the actual physical packing of the vehicle. I made one request—factor in stops every 4-6 hours, preferably at a park, so the boys can get out to run and play while we stretch.

Our boys are three and a half and one and a half.  They are used to making the three hour trek to Utica, NY to visit my parents several times a year but I was still a bit worried about the extensive amount of time we would be spending in the car. I was particularly worried about bathroom needs since our oldest is potty-trained but almost always has quick bathroom access—what happens when bathrooms aren’t so readily available?

I got my answer to the bathroom worry right away—he did fine. No bathroom accidents and he got to conduct his own personal research project about public restrooms as we stopped up and down the highway. It was during one of these bathroom adventures that I learned something very valuable and eased my travel worries for the rest of the trip.



At the first bathroom stop, just a few hours into the trip, I took the oldest into the bathroom while my husband unbuckled the youngest with the intention of giving him some time to walk and escape the constraints of the car seat.

When I exited the restroom with my oldest, I was surprised to find my husband and youngest cuddle-walking up and down the sidewalk. Their heads were tucked into the space between each other’s head and shoulders, rubbing and patting each other’s backs.

“I tried to put him down and let him run, but he clung to me. He seemed to really want to be held.”

I was so very grateful for this observation my husband made and for his willingness to follow through with the affection-craving demands of our tiny tot.

This turned out to be true for most of the trip. Little guy was perfectly happy in his car seat, but needed that warm comfort of being held every few hours when we stopped. During one particularly long stretch of driving, when he got a bit fussy I reached back and held his hand for a bit—which seemed to satisfy his needs just long enough for us to make it to our next stop.

This was exactly the reminder I needed to relax a bit and enjoy the rest of the week. Kids don’t always need what we think they are going to need. We thought the little guy would want to get out and run—in fact our oldest did (so did we, to be truthful)! But he needed something different. He told us exactly what he needed—we just needed to pay attention.

The rest of the week was wonderful. It wasn’t perfect—there were tantrums, meltdowns, tears, and a very tired ring bearer who almost fell asleep right before the ceremony—all to be expected during a busy week of fun in the sun and family celebrations. But, as soon as I stepped back and watched for what they needed instead of pushing what I thought they needed, it gave us more quality time together.



What worked for our family may not work for yours—every family, every child, and every situation is a little bit different.

Family road trip/vacation suggestions from our family to yours:
  • Stop every few hours near a playground or park so the kids can run around
  • Factor in at least one bathroom break every 2-3 hours, lasting approximately 10-15 minutes each (depending on number of children) when determining the arrival time at your destination
  • Have a cooler with light food and drinks as well as a bag full of snacks handy and reachable from the front seat.
  • Pack special blankets and lovies in a separate bag within reach so the kids can snuggle with them in the car and they can easily be transported into your destination.
  • Talk about what you see outside the windows-cars, leaves, trees, mountains, trains, rivers, animals, etc.
  • Listen to a book on tape, without watching the screen. If your children are a bit older you can even pick an audiobook together or start a series. Listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension so children can listen at a higher level than they are reading at.
  • Pack bubbles and wet wipes in the glove box. No matter the kid’s age, wet wipes are handy for cleaning hands, faces, and messes and bubbles make everyone happy.
  • The car is not merely a means of getting to the destination, it is part of the adventure. Embrace it.