Answer: Travel with young children can be a lot of fun and a lot of work. There are several reasons children have a hard time coping with the rigors of long car trips. First, young children are restless and have a higher need for physical activity. Because of their small tummies and bladders, they also have a need for more frequent snack and bathroom breaks. Young children have a poorly developed sense of time and distance, an underlying factor in the classic question, "Are we there yet?" In addition to those developmental issues, travel often leads to overexcitement and heightened expectations, which in turn can lead to irritability and disappointment--for people of all ages. Confined quarters and constant togetherness can exacerbate family conflict.
Despite those challenges, a little advance planning can make things go more smoothly for both children and parents. Here are some tried and true tips from parents who have been there:
Be physically prepared. For example, dress children in loose, comfortable clothing and have a pillow and blanket to snuggle up with during the long ride. Prepare a special bag of goodies for each child, including their favorite snacks, beverages, small toys, books, and art supplies. Audio cassettes of music or stories--often available free of charge from your public library--can entertain for long periods of time.
Set clear and realistic expectations or "rules of the road." For example, let all family members know they must be strapped into their car seats or seatbelts at all times. Remind children to "use inside voices and talk nicely to each other." (This is a matter not only of good manners, but safety. There is nothing more risky for a driver than contending with a shouting match in the back seat.) Then be sure to let the kids know when you're pleased with theire behavior--catch them being good!
Plan surprises along the way. Every so often, pull out a new book, tape, game or treat. Or make an unannounced stop at a special roadside attraction.
Help to mark the passing of time by breaking it into manageable chunks. Especially for young children who can't tell time, an oven timer is a helpful tool. Set the timer for 20 minutes and let the kids know that when the bell rings it will be time for a break or a treat.
Take frequent breaks with opportunities to burn off energy. A 10-minute stop to climb around on a playground, or even just to play a quick game of catch at a rest stop, can do wonders to restore good spirits in a restless preschooler.
Do less and enjoy it more. As you think about all the sights to see and people to visit, keep in mind that young children are easily exhausted by being overprogrammed. Better to have a good time in a few places than to be miserable in many.
Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.