I'm writing this on a road trip, the longest we've taken with our two daughters. It is nine hours according to the phone's GPS, which means 11 hours in actual time with stops, which equates to 24 hours in perceived time.
My younger daughter has just puked after a curvy stretch of road. We pulled over to change her outfit and wipe down the car seat, door, chair backs -- all of it, really. "Parenting rite of passage," my unflappable wife called it as we got back on the mountain road.
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"Best case scenario for a car trip with little kids: boring," my wife also said, years ago, when our older daughter was a toddler. There is little joy in long drives with little ones, except in the absence of burdens such as screaming, complaints or terrible traffic.
Nap time back then was the best time. On drives between our home in New York and our families in Washington, when the girls were both under age 7, we'd talk in hushed tones or not at all. No radio, as music or NPR might wake them up. It was like that movie "A Quiet Place," where the monsters can find you only when you make noise. When our family in DC asked how the trip went, we'd say, "Great, we were bored out of our minds."
Now, boredom is a complaint we get from the kids (ages 6 and 10). And so we have them pack activity bags for drawing and creative games. We download kids' audiobooks and podcasts. They'll flirt with car sickness to read books. We all nap intermittently. We'll even do a bit of phone games or, quite rarely, fire up a LeapPad or iPad.
But boredom creeps back in between activities and snacks. And that's when the best parts of road trips can kick in. We talk about stuff. We sing. We play those classic car games like "Alphabet" (racing to find letters on street signs), improv storytelling, Mad Libs or car bingo. We poke fun at restaurant names and gas station treats. ("Brookie!" I exclaimed inside a West Virginia gas station market, pointing out to the girls an unholy manufactured brownie-cookie hybrid from the Island of Chef Moreau.) And best of all, we notice nature. "Hawk!" "Mountains!" "Horses!" "Waterfall!" "Baby cows!"
On this long, long trip, we did all of the above and more. For one hilarious half-hour, we practiced French phrases from an audiobook for a future trip.
We're all overscheduled these days, shuttling between school, work, playdates, meetings, sports, exercise and other extracurriculars. But it's actually the shuttling that is the quality time. It's when you share a laugh or observation and get the scoop on your kids' lives.
Long car trips are also an argument for boredom because, out of desperation, we must entertain ourselves with little more than ourselves -- a good life skill. And in so doing, as we pass the miles, we become engaged and present with one another. There's little to distract the listening of stories or of answers to probing questions or the communal joy of sharing a chocolate chip brookie.
Being stuck on a long car ride together might test a parent's stamina and imagination, but what a gift it is to be bored together for so long, surrounded by mountains and baby cows! C'est magnifique!
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