Hit the Road Without the DVDs
Road trip? Two words, lots of problems: the 3-year-old who kicks the seat for 420 miles, the 8-year-old who repeatedly barfs on his siblings, and the sullen teenager who won't get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. Do this without a DVD player? Why?
Because there really isn't another experience like it in the world. If you keep one good image from this trip into your old age-one moment when your 3-year-old wins at car bingo, your 8-year-old figures out the map route to the dinosaur park, or your teen talks to you for five minutes riding through the dark night while the rest of the family sleeps-then it really and truly is worth it. It doesn't have to be far, it doesn't have to be educational, it doesn't have to beanything. It already is something wonderful: uninterrupted, open-ended time.
The main things you need to know are:
Your kids will scream. But resist all temptation to have a DVD player in reserve that can be watched "occasionally."
Prepare. Involve your children in the planning. Building anticipation and getting your kids to read by offering suggestions and researching what they want to see or do are critical to a good trip.
Lower your expectations. Do not compare this journey with any that you took when you were young. Time has most likely softened the horrific memories of your childhood car trips, so don't freak out when fighting, crying, and total disinterest break out somewhere along the way.
Stop frequently. Build plenty of free time into your schedule so that if you see a playground, you can pull over. If you see an open field, lake, or just a big anthill, pull over. A sign "Rodeo Today" at the intersection of two roads may be the path to a great memory for all of you.
Books on tape. This is probably the best time filler on the open road. Let each family member pick out three CDs from the library or bookstore. After a few hundred miles, even your teenager will be listening surreptitiously to Charlotte's Web.
Have fabulous supplies. Give each child his own notebook, disposable camera, and art supplies in a monogrammed cardboard box. Buy small cloth bags, initial them, and fill with earplugs, eye masks, and battery-powered book lights.
Have fun yourself. Secretly take a whoopee cushion along and place it on your spouse's restaurant chair one evening. Your kids will think you're a star, and they'll probably tell the story at your 50th wedding anniversary. They won't tell any stories about the DVD player that wasn't there, I promise you.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.