Entertaining Kids in the Car

Long distance car trips are something I grew up with. When I was very young, our family would drive from Melbourne, Victoria all the way to Toowoomba, Queensland for the Christmas holidays. That’s a car trip just short of 1600km (or 1000 miles) long. I have vivid memories of being three and four years old and being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to Nana and Grandad’s house. I’d stay awake for the whole trip, pointing out kangaroos near the road, singing little songs I’d made up, and counting cars and trees and sheep and anything else that took my fancy. We’d stop every few hours and have “car food”. Hot chips, or donuts, or sausage rolls — the type of food we never had at home. Sometimes, we’d even stop for a hot chocolate or an ice cream.

When I was a bit older, car trips were full of games. I Spy, Trivia, counting games, rhyming games, and home-made Bingo Cards full of things like cows and postboxes and Ambulances. The first one to see them all wins!

When I was a teenager, I got my first Walkman. I’d happily bliss out to my music for a while, but before long I’d be bored and playing Guess Who? with my sister (we memorised all the people so we didn’t need to use a board) or challenging my siblings to The Alphabet Game.

Car trips were fun, family events when I was a kid. And now that I’m a parent, I endeavour to make them fun for my boys as well. Even driving five-year-old Big Brother to school involves games, made up stories and rhymes. And a traffic jam is a perfect opportunity for I Spy.  
There’s an interesting Facebook page that I occasionally visit called Brisbane Kids. They regularly post questions that have been emailed in to them by concerned, curious, or interested parents. I happened to come across this question last week:

My 15 month old is a shocking car traveller and has been for quite some time now, even on very short trips (less than 10 mins). I think he gets frustrated with being restrained, as he is usually so active. I now avoid driving places which is becoming pretty restrictive. Any suggestions as to how to improve the situation? We have tried singing, kids CDs, food (car is now a bomb site), box of toys next to seat etc.

Well, I know a thing or two about entertaining kids in the car. Plus,  I’ve been in this situation with both my boys in the past. Big Brother hated the car between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 months. Little Brother wasn’t quite so difficult (possibly because he was excited about being in the car with his brother), but still went through a stage when he was about a year old where he hated the car for a month or so. And in both cases, I did exactly what I would recommend to anyone else: I persevered.

This question sounds like it’s from a mother who has, and is, trying to persevere. She’s tried everything she can think of, and now she’s reaching out for advice, suggestions, and possibly even a simple reminder that it does get better. Good on her, really. It’s not easy to ask for help when you’ve got a small child, and I have a lot of respect for people who can bypass their pride in favour of doing what’s best for themselves and their children. But before I shared my thoughts with her, I decided to read the other 43 comments. Just to make sure I wasn’t repeating anyone else.

But what I found shocked me.

There were some good suggestions. Try moving the car seat to a different position. Make sure the car seat is comfortable. Use toys that are only available in the car. Sing songs. Wait it out. Persevere.

All good advice.

But twenty-three different people had a different answer. Twenty-three people suggested the mother invest in a portable DVD player for the car. Twenty-three people said some version of the following statements:

  • There’s only one way to keep kids entertained in the car and that’s a portable DVD player.
  • My child used to cry in the car, so I put in a portable DVD player and now she’s always quiet.
  • Just put children’s programming on a portable DVD player and all your problems will be solved.

I was really stunned by this response. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t see it coming is a sign that I’m not really in tune with modern society. Either way, as I read the comment I found my mood vacillating between outrage and despair.

I don’t believe that all twenty-three of those people are bad parents, but I do worry about the over-reliance on electronic devices to entertain children. Even disregarding the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under the age of two  shouldn’t watch any television at all, I have a number of concerns:

  1. Are the parents who suggested DVD players aware that there is scientific evidence that children of that age can be negatively impacted by watching TV? If not, what does that say about the way the message is being spread?
  2. If the first reaction of parents is to stun a 15 month old boy into silence through use of a DVD Player, what do they do at home when their kids are noisy or argumentative or upset or tired or loud?
  3.  If the only way you have to cope with upset children is to put them in front of a screen, what do you do when there are no TVs, DVDs or computers available?

Keeping a toddler quiet by putting him in front of a TV screen might seem like the easiest option, but is it the best one? At the end of the day, the only person who can make that decision is you. But remember this:

It’s cute when a two-year-old goes from shrieking to silent with the careful push of a button on a portable DVD player.

It’s not so cute when a twenty-year-old man has no ability to entertain himself for five minutes without a screen in front of him.

Instead of reaching for the ‘on’ button next car trip, try challenging your children to be the first one to spot a man walking a dog. Tell as many terrible knock-knock jokes as you can make up on the spot. Sing songs from your childhood. Take it in turns to sing a line of a made-up song. Try something different. See how it goes. Maybe you’ll discover the same thing I did, all those years ago: Being trapped in a car for 20 hours at a time isn’t a chore, it’s a fun-filled adventure that comes with its own captive audience.

Did you play games in the car when you were a child? What about now? Do you own a portable DVD player? Do/Would you let your children watch it?


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

19 responses to “Entertaining Kids in the Car

  1. Like you, I grew up taking long road trips with my family. We traveled over 1,600 miles (2,700 km) to Amherst Shore, Nova Scotia from Atlanta, GA. We played many of the same games you played, in addition to the car license tag game – trying to find all 50 states, make sentences with the letters, etc.
    When Rob and I packed up the boys and headed North, I did invest in a portable DVD player, along with crayons, pads of paper, and activity books. At the time, the boys were 3 and 4.
    This past summer, when we made our second trip North with the boys (now 6 and 7), we had the portable DVD players along with a DS (hand held video game console), which I borrowed from a friend.
    The boys played more games than watched the DVD, though I agree neither are ideal. Rob and I also made a point to have several times in the day when there was ‘no electronics’. We made sure the boys noticed the scenery, watched us go over bridges, check out the various cities, etc.
    The 1,600 mile drive (3,200 round trip) was an incredibly wonderful journey. I look forward to the next road trip to Amherst Shore with the boys, and we’ll probably bring electronics again, too.

    • I failed to mention, we still played the traditional car games during our trip. Plus, the boys have a 15 mile drive to school every morning. (No gadgets) We spend that time playing games, creating stories, counting buses, etc.

    • See, I clearly needed an alternate point of view, ala your joint blog with Kim. 🙂

      Look, 1600 miles is a long way. I appreciate that. And, like you say, your boys were a bit older. Even the AAP’s findings say that children over 2 can safely have up to a couple of hours screen time a day. So it’s a bit different to putting a 15 month old in front of a TV to keep them quiet. (Also, I can’t imagine that you went for very long at all without including the boys in conversation about something that was happening outside the car!)

      We also played a car license game, although since there’s only eight states/territories in Australia, it’s not quite as much fun to look for those. We mostly looked for combinations of letters, or played the alphabet game using number plates.

  2. When I was young, we played games while travelling. I did not have special travel food; however I did have a new book (fiction or puzzle) that I had chosen but was not allowed to open until the journey, which probably had a similar effect.

    As well as the effect of watching anything passively on both attention span and imagination, I feel television might be becoming worse than when I was young: I used to find programmes of the 70’s and 80’s tightly paced; after several years of more modern programmes they seem slower than I recall. If the effect is noticeable in me as a writer (so of above average imagination) then what might it be doing to those who have not developed a strong inner life?

    Possibly I am just turning into a curmudgeon, lamenting the death of proper entertainment (even the nostalgia was better when I was young :)).

    • Ah, nostalgia… remember when it was awesome?

      We don’t watch TV in our house, but every Saturday night we have “Family Movie Night”. We take our five year old to the video shop and he delights in helping choose a movie for us all to watch. (My 19 month old is too young yet to join in, and he’s usually asleep by the time the movie starts.) What I’ve found is that my five year old gets more enjoyment and engagement out of old movies my husband and I watched as a kid, than he gets out of the modern Pixar-esque children’s movies with all the bells and whistles.

      Like I said, we normally pick a movie every Saturday. But twice, my son has loved the movie so much, he’s wanted to keep it and watch the same one the following week. Those two movies were The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Labyrinth (1986). Meanwhile, he often gets bored or completely sees through the plot of modern movies.

  3. My sister used to utlize her DVD players to go to the grocery store. I don’t have one, never had one and refuse to get one. Noah is 13 and we STILL play car games like the alphabet game. We all sing together to the radio, making up our own words and we (gasp!) TALK to one another. I remember crying to my mom, ‘It’s just tree after tree!’ but really we always enjoyed car trips and everything it brought that you DIDN’T get at home – like car food.

  4. sahbinahvioletflynn

    When my son was small, I’d play “Wee Sing” cassettes so that longer times in the car might be light hearted and fun. Mostly, we’d talk about the things we saw as we drove. Sadly, the reliance on electronic devices is not reserved for the car. I’ve been on shopping trips where every child in the shopping cart is playing with some sort of device. A gross epidemic.

    • I’ve seen those types of things, too. It makes me sad. We’ve got this whole generation of kids growing up in a virtual world, barely aware of the wonders that exist all around them. I overheard a conversation one day between a mother and her daughter, who would have been about three.

      Girl: What’s that, Mummy?
      Mother: It’s a rose, honey.
      Girl: What’s a rose?
      Mother: It’s a type of flower. Would you like to have a smell?
      Girl: No. Can you show me on the computer?

  5. looseleafbri

    I grew up without a tv. I grew up to be a normal functioning human being. Amazing. I totally agree. I get the idea minimal use of DVDs with kids but to become the solution always used is not so good. Maybe a balance. DVD player on the long trips (we did lots of all day car trips) and then a limit on how much they can watch. It’s good for us to learn how to entertain ourselves.

    • Congratulations on growing up to be a normal, functioning human being without a TV. There are many, many people out there who don’t think that’s a possibility. 🙂

      I think some balance is fine. I’m certainly not jumping up and down and suggesting DVD Players are evil. For older children, having the opportunity to watch a movie during the boring part of an all-day drive is no doubt a nice thing. As you say, the problem is when it becomes the solution.

  6. “It’s not so cute when a twenty-year-old man has no ability to entertain himself for five minutes without a screen in front of him.”

    He’d end up like the guy I saw a couple of years ago running for a subway train, desperate to get in before the doors closed, but still carrying his portable DVD player in front of him, watching a movie.

  7. Thank you for this! Charlotte (at 2.5 years old) is and always has been a mess in the car. But we have not resorted to electronic distraction. So glad to know we’re not crazy!

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