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Spring Break Road Rules
Filed Under family fun, travel

Dear Catherine,

My family of five is planning a road trip vacation for spring break. With a 10-, 8-, and 4-year-old in tow we're nervous. While we want them to appreciate our nation's natural beauty through the windows of our vehicle, we know they would much rather plug into an iPad, read a book or argue amongst themselves. How in the world do we make this trip not only easy for us—the parents—but enjoyable AND educational for the kids?


No Whining in the Minivan

Dear No Whining,

Road trip!

Even though I don’t know how far you're going, what the gender divide is in your family or how seriously hooked your kids are on their gadgets, I strongly suggest leaving the iPad (and, for that matter anything tablet-y that doesn't involve chiseling on stone) behind.

Wait, don't stop reading. I know, deeply, how important it can be for a parent's sanity to occasionally plug the kids in. But there's a reason for my proposed crazy-sounding measures. See, I once unplugged my kids for a road trip—and lived to tell about it.

RELATED: In Celebration of the Family Road Trip

I did it because I was experimenting with Franco parenting, and I'd seen a number of French kids make do without portable electronics. I was petrified to be confined in close quarters with my two Phineas-and-Ferb-loving daughters without a cartoon fix in sight, and I had visions of being forced to reenact every scene from The Sound of Music with their father for hours on end. (Actually, imagining my husband as Captain von Trapp doesn't sound so bad right now.) Anyway, in the end I held strong, and was very pleasantly surprised.

First of all, I'd already transformed into The Chief, so I started off by announcing to my girls, "On this vacation we are not bringing any screens. End of story." Maybe the advance warning helped out, and they knew nothing was packed away for them to switch on (and tune out). Begging was futile. Now, not even the French (or at least me trying to be French) could work the miracle of eliminating all whining, but after we got into the swing of it, the volume of gripes in the car diminished without all the electronic paraphernalia on hand (counterintuitive, I know) and things seemed ... dare I say ... more meaningful.

In the car we sang songs, listened to music and played somewhat questionable games with other drivers.

I felt a little shot of joy every time I caught one of my daughters staring out the window with that out-of-range look on her face that I remember so well from the road trips of my youth. In the car we sang songs, listened to music, and played somewhat questionable games with other drivers (the girls introduced me to one called "Sweet & Sour"—wherein they wave and smile at passing motorists in an attempt to get more sweets—i.e., travelers who return their cheer—than sours or those who choose to ignore. The girls love this one. I find it somewhat humiliating and, as The Chief, abstain). We also listened to audiobooks because I'm not completely bonkers and even a faux-Frenchie needs a break. For some reason, the books-on-tape didn't seem to detract from the camaraderie we were building—maybe because we were all listening to the book together. Plus, James and his giant peach make for such a good story!

I'm from an enormous family, and every summer my parents crammed seven to nine (you read that right) of us kids in their yellow station wagon and drove 10 hours from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit cousins. When I had kids of my own, I'd often marvel at my parents' stamina—how could they possibly survive that kind of drive without movies and gizmos to keep everyone quiet and occupied?

RELATED: Allowance Is Not Motivating My Kids

Now I've realized that the lack of mindless entertainment just might be why it worked. I have gushy, happy memories of being in that yellow station wagon singing "Oklahoma" at the top of my lungs with my siblings. It was a sad realization for me that my girls wouldn't have similar flashbacks by ninja-ing so much fruit in the car. The truth is, the lasting memories of road trip iPad gaming are of car-sickness, inevitable irritation, and tired eyes and minds.

To fight this sad outcome, do as old hippies did: Turn off, and tune into family fun.

Good luck to you and your petit copilots. You may want to stockpile some good, French chocolate just in case.

Bon Voyage!


P.S. Shhhh ...

If you sense a rising panic attack at the mere thought of embarking sans an electronic crutch stashed somewhere in the van, here are some middle-ground apps that can help keep things fun, chummy and educational:

Try a collaborative board game,

this to count red cars you are passing,

and if you turn on Layar app, it will tell you all sorts of cool things about the places you are passing.

Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at

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