I was on the Arran ferry yesterday and noticed all the families. Okay, I noticed the family at the next table, because the parents were staring out the window at the water in glassy-eyed shock, obviously wondering what had possessed them to trap themselves on a small island with the three demonic changelings who had clearly replaced the children they’d started with. There was an infant who screamed without apparently any need to draw a breath for the entire duration of the trip. She was my favorite, at least compared to her two brothers who raced around trying to stab each other, random passengers, and my very nervous dog with their plastic swords.
I would be a lot more judgemental, but I too have spawned. There are some cities—and okay, and a few states. And maybe Mexico…—to which I will never be able to return. But I have learned a few things.
Today’s blast from the past is one of my columns for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette in 1991.
For all you amateurs out there planning a summer car trip with your children—we recommend at least three under age six—here are a few professional tips.
PACKING: Make two piles, Essential and Nonessential. The first thing to put in the Essential pile is several industrial-sized packages of diapers. You never know when you’ll be in some foreign locale (anywhere it’s a toll call to your pediatrician) where they might not have disposable diapers.
Also, your children will naturally want to bring several mementos of home. You can refuse them, at least the first couple of times they ask. In the end, however, you’ll find it’s easier just to go ahead and add the Ms. Dolly, Miss Baby, and Mr. Ernie dolls, plus all the kids’ bedding, clothes, books, toys, and electronic gadgets to the Essential pile.
This pile should also contain large stocks of snack foods with the average nutritional value of carpet lint. Relax! Only total strangers will actuall see you feeding it to your kids, and the odds are they won’t mention it to your in-laws. These snacks will allow you to for extended periods without stopping the car, sometimes 16 to 18 minutes at a stretch.
In the Nonessential pile, you can put the road maps and your clothes, if you want. But there won’t be enough room in the car for them, so really…why bother? I advise slipping in a change of any underwear that will fit into that little pocket in the driver’s door. Something unisex works well here.
LOADING: a key element is the vehicle itself. For the full roadtrip experience, we recommend something elderly and fairly decrepit. Speculation on your chances of actually arriving at your destination will provide endless hours of car conversation. Of course, your car will already contain the usual standard equipment—your car seats, strollers, diaper bags, and 3,478 plastic prizes given out by Chez Big Mac over the past 3 1/2 years.
Be sure you pack everything into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and My Little Pony pillowcases. Not only do they stuff well into your car, they look particularly festive when the bellboy at your hotel loads them onto one of those little carts and parades after you across the lobby before the awed stares of your fellow guests.
TRAVELING: One parent is The Driver. He is responsible for the operation of the vehicle and for refusing to stop and ask directions even though it’s been several hundred miles since the last recognizable road sign and the GPS shows your little vehicle icon surrounded by a field of black (or even worse, blue) as if you’ve driven off the edge of the known universe.
The other parent is The Feeder. She is responsible for throwing a steady stream of Chocolate Whizzies over her shoulder into the backseat—TIP: Do NOT ever turn around to see what they are actually doing with these—and asking The Driver if he is falling asleep.
Occasionally they switch places ‘so he can get some rest’. This is not usually successful, however, as he will spend the entire rest time telling her not to hit that car or that fence. This is hardly fair because she has never actually hit anything. Okay, there was that incident with those trees, but they aimed for her so they deserved everything they got…
One of the high points of every family car trip is, of course, stopping at roadside restaurants. It is important to keep in mind that children love variety and will be delighted to stop at any interesting looking restaurant. Of course, they won’t actually eat in any establishment other than Chez Big Mac’s.
The first ritual of restaurant stops involves parents begging kids to go to the bathroom. Several recent scientific studies, however, have offered conclusive proof that children’s bladders can only be activated by the sight of hot food being placed in front of their parents.
Always leave a large tip. This ensures good will on your return visit, which may occur quite soon because about 125 miles down the road the four-year-old will announce that she left Ms. Dolly there, and it’s okay if you don’t go back—she’ll just never sleep again.
ENTERTAINMENT: with the toys, books, movies, and electronica you brought, most children will entertain themselves beautifully for about the first half-mile. After this, you may want to consider some educational games to pass the time:
- Reading Readiness: Every child who is even nominally verbal can read Chez Bib Mac signs. They will enjoy pointing every one of these out to you, assuring you that they are dying of hunger because they haven’t eaten in minutes.
- Telling Time: In this game, the children ask every twelve seconds, “How long till we get there?” Some parentally correct replies: “Get where? We’re not going anywhere, we’re just out enjoying the scenic six-lane freeway.” or “Why don’t you see how many license plates you can find that match ours?”
- Math Skills: In this game, you count how many times The Driver refuses to stop before the six-year-old—who has eaten 138 Chocolate Whizzies—throws up. A rollicking variation of this involves speculation about whether the peculiarly luminous green of her face would really glow in the dark.
If you carefully prepare for your family car trip and follow all these tips, i’m sure you’ll end up the way we usually do—staying home and settling for Big Macs and Chocolate Whizzies.