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Bond or Bust

Long trips in the car are a great time for getting to know your kids better. Here's how

"On the road again. I can't wait to get on the road again." I'm humming this Willie Nelson song as I pack our family's suitcases for the four-hour drive to my parents' house in Indiana. For us, and many other families these days, the trip to grandmother's house involves a whole lot more than a quick jaunt over the river and through the woods. Instead, many of us can only celebrate with extended family after a long journey via plane, train or automobile.

When you think of family travel, maybe you envision singing carols and laughing together as the miles tick by. Maybe you picture long, meaningful conversations with your spouse while the kids play happily in the back. But when reality sets in, most parents know that a long trip with kids is more likely to involve fights, whining and yelling.

But your family drive doesn't have to be a parenting nightmare. In fact, it's possible to take advantage of the fact that you're all stuck in the car together for hours and use your travel time to grow closer. While you probably can't eliminate every bit of stress, you can turn the trip into an important part of your happy holiday.

Road Relationships

Before you break out the portable VCR, Walkmans and Gameboys, here's something to consider. According to clinical psychotherapist Sherry Rediger, kids are more likely to have memories of your time traveling together than of the event itself. Rediger, her husband, Jeff, and their three young children regularly travel about 900 miles by car and airplane during the holidays to visit relatives. She encourages parents to think of traveling with your kids as a time to enter their world. "Traveling is one of the few times I have my children's complete attention and they have mine. Everyone is belted into a seat and no one can get up and run around," she says. Rediger suggests making the most of this time together by focusing on each other and playing creative games that help you get to know each other better.

For example, Rediger and her children play a game they call, "Where do you think that car is going?" It starts with a parent asking the question and pointing to a specific vehicle on the road. The child answers with "to the airport" or whatever destination they dream up. The whole family then makes up stories about the people in the car. The game can get as crazy and goofy as your family wants it to. While this game is a lot of fun, it can also spawn insights into what's happening in your child's world.

Rediger recounts playing the game with her 4-year-old, Bryn. "She told us the kids in another car were going to visit their grandma," Rediger said. "That was a good opportunity for us to talk about how much she was missing her grandmother and ways Bryn could stay in touch with her."

Open-ended questions can be a terrific springboard for discussion and help young children get excited about the holidays. Jane Jarrell, author of Holiday Hugs (Harvest House), suggests questions like, "What makes you feel most special at Christmas?" or "What's your favorite thing Grandma cooks at Thanksgiving?" You can also spark conversation with older children by asking leading questions such as "What is your best holiday memory?"

Get creative with games like "The Continuing Story." One person starts with a make-believe adventure, then stops at a harrowing moment, letting the next person take up the plot line. You may find that some of your kids' real-life struggles and victories make their way into the saga.

Of course if you've got a really long trip ahead, say eight hours, you can't spend the whole time talking. But rather than have everyone tune out everyone else in the car, find a quiet activity that contributes to the memory-making. Letting the kids create their own travel journal is one idea that's worked well for Susan Yates, the mother of five kids and author of How to Like the Ones You Love (Baker). When her family starts a trip, each child gets a new blank book to write down their thoughts and memories. Kids can even collect mementos, like postcards, ticket stubs, brochures or maps to add to their journals. Yates suggests encouraging younger children to draw pictures of what they see along the way and letting them dictate a few sentences for older siblings or parents to write alongside the drawings.

When they travel, Yates's family also picks a verse for the day. Then, as they drive, they find ways to incorporate the verse into their trip. For instance, they might choose Psalm 19:1: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." A beautiful sunset or an interesting cloud formation seen from the car, train or airplane can get everyone talking about the ways they see God's hand in nature.

Kids also cherish one-on-one time with Mom or Dad, but that can be a little tricky in a car full of people. If your kids are old enough to ride in the front seat, don't overlook the opportunity to give each one a chance to ride "shotgun" with the driver. One of my own happiest childhood memories is riding up front with my father on road trips and having his complete attention.

When Good Travel Goes Bad

Ask any parent, and chances are they have a legion of nightmare stories about traveling with their children. For Sherry Rediger, the key to avoiding bad holiday trip memories is to talk about expectations ahead of time, establish consequences for misbehavior, and enforce the rules when necessary.

Rediger suggests having a plan for handling conflict before you even get in the car. Her approach is to deal with issues as soon as they come up. "Don't make the consequences for bad behavior something abstract or in the future. Avoid threats such as, 'If you keep pulling your sister's hair, you won't be able to go swimming tonight when we get to the hotel,'" she says. "Instead, make consequences immediate: 'If you hit your brother again, I'll take your puzzle book away.'"

Susan Yates recommends parents anticipate conflict before it happens. "Come up with a system for things like who gets to sit by the window," she says. "Let one child have the window in the morning, and one in the afternoon (or divvy it up depending on how many kids you have). We want to build memories of relationships on our trips?not of Mom and Dad being referees."

As with discipline at home, consistency and follow-through are both essential on the road. Avoid using idle threats. On one car trip when our two children were 4 and 2, my husband, Jeff, and I realized we had used the time-honored promise "If you do that one more time, I'm pulling over" too many times without enforcing it. So, we vowed to actually pull over on the busy highway the next time anyone misbehaved. Our son started acting up, we warned him again, and sure enough, his antics continued. Jeff pulled the car over.

Almost immediately, a policeman in a cruiser, lights flashing, pulled over behind us. While our children sat big-eyed in the back seat, the officer strolled up to the driver's side window. "Any problems here folks?" he asked. "Only with our son!" Jeff said in frustration. Needless to say, our kids associated the police with our short stop, and we never had to pull over for misbehavior again.

Above all, traveling with kids means packing a sense of humor. Yates recalls how laughter helped her while traveling with her family on a busy interstate. Their small son had to go to the bathroom "right now!" but there was no place to pull over, so they handed him an empty water bottle. His aim was bad, and he missed, spraying his sister. Chaos ensued.

Our family still laughs about the trip to Grandma's house when the dog threw up in the back seat?all over both kids. The clean-up we did with the car wash vacuum hose and the new clothes we bought at the only store nearby?where everything cost a dollar!?are now a part of our scrapbook of family memories. For your family, it might be a missed exit ramp that sparks a 30-mile detour, the filthy gas station restroom where your foot went through the floor, or eating at the restaurant with the "For Sale" sign where the surly waitress spilled soup all over Dad. Your attitude will determine if these incidents are the stuff of nightmares, or the funny family legends that will live on in the retelling long after your kids leave home.

Yes, the road and airways are packed with travelers this time of year. And yes, hauling the family to Great Aunt Edith's farm can stress out even the most level-headed parent. But with a fresh perspective and some tried-and-true travel tricks up your sleeve, your family can arrive at your destination closer than ever.

Cindy Crosby recently logged over 1,000 miles in the car with her husband and their two teenagers

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