Long Car Trips Give Kids Valuable Skills, Like Learning Not To Kill Each Other

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It was only last week that my family took our very first car trip. We didn’t even have a car, really, until a short time ago. I mean, we did. But it was a 2-door Honda Civic into which we shoved two carseats if we really needed to get somewhere. But now we’ve moved a little further out from downtown D.C. and have a real live minivan that I love. (Shut up.)

So we piled into the minivan last week and headed up to New York City. Ideally, this is like a 4-5 hour trip. Or so I remember from the many times I traveled this road in my younger years. Well, this was not such an ideal situation. We knew things would be a bit rougher when we first hit traffic within a few miles from home. I swear it’s taken me less time to get through Nebraska than going across Deleware that day. We landed at our destination in Brooklyn some eight hours later. It was brutal.

And yet it was also a valuable learning experience. It wasn’t like when I was a kid and we didn’t even wear seat belts, much less sit in car seats. No, our girls were strapped in without even so much benefit as having had practice with it. But through careful planning on our part and a slow rationing of treats, toys and snacks, we made it.

Our toddlers learned a little bit about how to appreciate their surroundings and gauge time. They desperately want to head back to New York – there’s a splash park in Cobble Hill! – but they are acutely aware of how much time it takes to get there and come home. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that “Are We There Yet?” is so much more than an just annoying question that kids ask.

My brother is about to take off on an epic trip. He lives in Denver and his family is heading out to D.C., where they’ll pick up my kids and keep going. He feels like this trip will be good for his own family. When my brother and I were growing up, we were far too poor for airline travel or even hotel stays. So if we needed to get somewhere, we drove and camped. And it was kind of annoying but also wonderful.

I learned how to start fires. I learned how to listen to my parents Carly Simon cassettes on loop as we drove through the American West without going crazy. I learned about wide open spaces and their relationship to solitude, patience and thoughtfulness. I learned how annoying my brother was when he would lay down with his head against the car door and his butt jammed firmly against my hip as he secured fully 1/2 of our back seat. (My sister and I shared the other half.) I learned to admire my siblings’ doodlings and my parents’ stories. I learned how the positioning of the sun dramatically changes the color of the landscape. I learned that my father was wrong when he said we had enough gas to make it to Las Vegas. I learned the consequences of running out of gas outside of Las Vegas. I learned new words and phrases that we made up, such as “car butt” (the feeling that your behind gets after 8 hours in a car) and “griegog” (a similar all over feeling of ickyness).

I hope my brother’s kids learn some of these lessons, even if they’ll be pampered with hotel rooms and an actual planned itinerary and a father who would never run out of gas. I know in the era of iPads, portable DVD players and the Nintendo 3DS that this vision of car trips might seem quaint. I don’t care. I hope I my own kids learn what it means to travel as a family – coping with minor inconveniences together, as well as sharing in the joy of discovery.