Driving with Kids: How to Avoid a Cataclysm in the Back Seat

Mother handing toy to children (1-10) travelling in car
There's a time and a place for taking scenic bypasses, eating at out-of-the-way mom and pop restaurants and visiting antique stores in a quest to add to your owl vase collection. And those times and places are not with kids in the back seat.

Road tripping with kids is still possible, of course, and given the costs of traveling via air or space, often necessary as well. Just like flying as a family though, you'll need to retool your approach from your childless days.

Pack Smart, It's the New Pack Light

Packing light is for the childless. Other than helping your gas mileage a bit, there's no benefit to leaving empty space in the car. (You've got kids now, so you probably shouldn't be saving spare seats for hitchhikers anymore anyway.)

Pack your essentials, then fill the open space with toys, snacks or anything else that can be used to buy a few minutes of quiet. Headphones aren't a good idea for small kids, but the sing-songy voices of Scout, Violet or another Leap Frog device are more tolerable to adult ears than the whines of children. Also, giving your kids a present as soon as they're buckled in should put them in a good mood to start the trip. (And if it doesn't, threatening to take away said toy might.)

Waking Hours are the New Rush Hours

It's a rare child who asks, "When are we going to be there?" while sleeping. So timing your drive to avoid waking hours is now as important as beating rush hour. Some suggestions:
  • Get up early, throw the kids over your shoulder and strap 'em in the back seat while they're still asleep. (As an added bonus, watching them wake up confused as to their whereabouts can provide quality on-board entertainment.)
  • Head out an hour or so before lunch, stop to eat, ply the kids with a Thanksgiving-sized meal (gavage-style if need be) to induce a food coma and then hit the road again.
  • If you're one of the rare parents not ready to pass out at 8 p.m., leave at night.

Really Stop and Rest at Rest Stops

Would you rather get to your destination in five scream-filled hours or seven quiet ones? Instead of rushing in and out of rest stops, take time to let your kids get the sillies out (or whatever other demons they've internalized).

To that end, Target stores make for an ideal rest stop. (Sorry.) They have plenty of space for the kids to run around, often have a Starbucks on site, have cleanish bathrooms with changing tables and you can pick up all the stuff you forgot to pack.

Cabela's are a good option too, even if you're not a sportsperson. They have clean bathrooms, cafes (try the wild boar sandwich) and to a small child, there's little difference between a full-on aquarium and the stores' giant fish tanks.

Looking for a sit-down meal, behold Bob Evans. It has a healthy menu, fast service and candy at the register that you can bribe your kids with.

And, when you do reach your final stop, make sure you rest as well. After all, you've most likely got to drive home at some point too.

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