To enjoy your family road trip, turn off the electronics. Really.

Photo by Asim Z Kodappana on Unsplash

It’s summer. School’s out and a family vacation may be a part of your plans. And for many families… that means it’s road trip time!

Personally, I love a good road trip, but I know that, for many, the idea of being trapped in your car… with your kids …for several hours can evoke feelings of true panic and stress. The fighting. The whining. The ‘are we there yet’ boredom.

Recently, the New York Times celebrated the arrival of summer with a special feature about family vacations. One of the sections showcased archival family vacation photos from the 1950s through the early 1990s as families enjoy trips from Coney Island or an African safari.

Two of the photographs really stuck got me thinking about how we do road trips today. The first features a group of about six boys packed into the rear of a station wagon (back when we did that sort of dangerous thing) with their dad grinning in the front seat, as they set off to embark on a drive from Staten Island to Canada. The other photo is a view of a family on a New York City tour bus, with one young boy clearly amazed at what he sees outside his window while another boy (his brother?) perhaps a bit more nervous about what he seeing on display in 1970s Manhattan.

What these photos show is excitement about an adventure that is about to unfold. And children who are looking out a window, instead of looking down at a device.

Now, of course there was no such thing as a cell phone or computer tablets at the time. The most high-tech device in that station wagon is likely an 8-track cassette player. And without them, the kids in the back of the station wagon may well have erupted into hours-long battles over the limited space of the ‘back back’ (what we used to call that seat belt-less space).

It is perhaps because of our own memories of fighting with a sibling on a trip, that as parents we try to minimize tension and chaos when we take our own kids on a road trip. So we download movies and hand out head phones to create what we might call ‘silos of peace.’

But I will suggest that your need for peace and quiet may come at a cost for your children and what they experience and learn. They might be losing out on the opportunity to experience the joys and (occasional trials) of the journey. The simple pleasures of looking out a window at a changing landscape. How to negotiate and share space or a single set of crayons. How to be okay with being bored.

As a kid, we took lots of road trips, most often traveling the I-95 corridor between Washington, DC and New Jersey. We were about a year apart from each other, so there was no real hierarchy of age (much to my dismay, as my oldest child status only had so much pull). As a result, we constantly battled over equanimity – no child was ever to get or do more than the other. In the car, this meant concocting elaborate schemes over who sat where and when. For 1/3 of the trip you were in the back-back; 1/3 of the time you got the whole back seat to yourself (the most desired spot); and the other 1/3 you had to sit in ‘the well’ – that space where you put your feet in the back seat (a space you probably never even conceived of as a place to sit. Okay, it was the 70s… please forgive our total lack of awareness of seat belt safety.) I’m sure that, to our parents, we were total pains in the ass, especially if the system didn’t work as planned. But for all the fights I assume we had, I don’t remember them. Instead, my most fond memories of these vacations really is in the process, remembering how we navigated this dynamic. The journey was as much fun as the destination.

Today, I have a 14-year old daughter. She is an only child, so she doesn’t have the ‘benefit’ of battling with a sibling in the back seat. We have taken many road trips together, including 15-hour schleps to Florida to visit DisneyWorld. There would have been nothing easier to keep her happy than to hand her an iPad, or DVD player (which was the more common option when she was little), put on a movie and let her enjoy her world. But we didn’t, at least not for most of the trip.

What we did instead was engage with her and the occasional cousin we would bring along. I would bring along print-outs so we could play car bingo, leaving us no choice but to look out the window at the landscape (and that’s how we discovered that ‘bird on a wire’ is a surprisingly hard box to check off!). We played the classic “twenty questions,” coming up with our own rules, such as no guessing until you ask 10 questions. Several variations of the alphabet game as well as a version of the 70s game show Password that I came up with were all a part of our repertoire. My daughter even created her own games, including a long-standing favorite, “Make Your Mouth Turn Into Something,” which, as I think about it, was much like a game we used to play with our father, “State Thingys.” (You would put together a kind of word rebus of rhymes that, when strung together, would give you a word or phrase. The all-time favorite was “howdy pig is your lava” otherwise known as the Bee Gee’s song “How Deep Is Your Love.”)

There is another benefit to keeping the electronics tucked away, and that is, without them, your child may get bored. (Oh, the horror!) Boredom is annoying. That is why we all grab our cell phones when we are standing in line somewhere (not gonna lie, I do this). But a true gift to our children is to allow them to be bored. Steve Jobs famously said “Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity” because having nothing to do, stimulates creativity as you figure out how not to be bored. Learning how to appropriately handle boredom (i.e. not freaking out at the prospect), is a way we develop executive function skills, so critical to our ability to focus and getting things done. Because of our magical mobile devices, the opportunities for boredom are fewer. We almost have to schedule them to make them happen and a road trip – sans electronics – is the perfect place to do this. 

You may think that there is absolutely no way that your kids could be entertained enough just by playing some old-school games. But what harm is there in trying to going electronics-free, if only for a little bit of your trip? They may enjoy them more than you expect, in large part because, as much as they want to watch that movie, they crave your attention even more. Admittedly, it is a harder habit to break if you have been using electronics as entertainment throughout a child’s life, but it’s worth the attempt. And if you have very young kids, do what we did with our child, and start them off early by not breaking out the devices until well into the trip.

I am not gonna lie. This is going to take work on your part and you will have to sacrifice some peace and missing out on some Facebook posts as you too will put away your phone. But take a look at the faces in the vintage photographs in the NY Times article I mentioned above. Excitement and joy about an experience. An experience with you… not their electronics. Remember that, and put away the phones and tablets. Your memories will thank you.


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