Enjoying Long Car Trips with Kids

three happy kids in the car

Each summer since the girls were little, the three of us would take two long weekend car trips. We make the five hour trip to the Outer Banks, and the nine hour trip to a family reunion in upstate New York. While we have one, I’m not a big fan of the car’s DVD player. They’ve always been allowed one movie per day on long trips, then the rest of the time is spent learning how to entertain themselves. Here’s what worked for us:

Bring supplies

  • Travel friendly art supplies – This includes a gallon bag of new crayons and several coloring books, stickers and plain paper, and Color Wonder markers and books.
  • Bag of car toys – We have two paper grocery bags in our garage packed with car toys at all times. This includes a few Woodkins doll packs with fabric, magnet dress-up dolls, houses and sceneries, a few matchbox cars and a few action figures.
  • Activity books and magazines – Activity books include Where’s Waldo, Look Alikes, Hidden Pictures, mazes, word-finds, dot-to-dots, invisible ink books, sticker books and puppet books.
  • The empty backpack – We always brought an empty backpack for collecting travel brochures, interesting placemats, menus, tickets and small souveniers.
  • Snacks – This one is an obvious must. We brought cereal cups, granola bars, bags of chips, water bottles and small juice boxes.

Play games

  • Travel board games – Many board games have a travel version. We have Trouble, Othello, Sorry and Connect Four.
  • Magnet games – Magnet games include chess and checkers, tic-tac-toe and Hangman. There’s also Wooly Willy, Hair-do Harriet and Lil Squirt magnet games.
  • Car games – Car games include the Alphabet Game, 20 Questions, the License Plate game, travel bingo, and punch buggy.

Sing-alongs and stories

  • Sing alongs – Remember all the old campfire songs “Little Rabbit in the Woods,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Head and Shoulders,” and “Home on the Range,” or patriotic songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” – a long car ride is the perfect time to teach these.
  • Read alouds – If it doesn’t make you car sick, a long car ride is the perfect time to read a chapter book aloud. It might be a nice time for an older sibling to read picture books aloud to a younger sibling.
  • Books on tape – In my car, these count as read alouds.
  • Family stories – This is one time of the year when you spend a few undivided hours with your family. This is the time to tell stories about your own family growing up, how you spent your summers or about traveling and vacations. This is a time to tell stories about when they were babies and growing up as well.
  • Talk games – This includes Table Talk for Kids or Melissa and Doug’s Box of Questions or American Girl’s conversation starters.

Stops along the way

  • Plan for it – On our way to the beach, we often stop for an hour at the Virginia Living Science Museum. On our way to the family reunion, we’ve stopped at Boyd’s Bears and the Corning Glass Museum.
  • Movement breaks – At least every two hours, it’s nice to stop and stretch your legs.  This may be just taking a quick walk around a rest stop, or if you plan ahead everyone could spend a few minutes tossing a beach ball or jumping rope.
  • Travel brochures – Part of trips with my younger daughter Claire is collecting travel brochures. She likes to look through the pictures and plan stops along the way. When we can, we take small detours to check out places from the brochures. For sure, this is how we found Mr. Sticky’s cinnamon buns in Pennsylvania.
  • Scenic stops – This would be my dad’s favorite and there’s no planning required. It’s nice to stop and scenic overlooks and historical landmarks.

Addressing Childhood Fears


Developing fears is a normal part of the preschool and early elementary school years.  Their awareness of the world and their imaginations are growing faster than their ability to use logic and reason. This is also a stage where the time they spend away from their families is increasing, and they are learning to function more independently. Typical fears include being afraid of the dark, being leary of strangers, being afraid of dogs, thunder or water. While fears are normal, it is the level of the fear that can be disruptive.

When you realize there is a fear, encourage your child to talk about it. Practice listening to all they say, validating that they have concerns, labeling and helping them to express their emotions. It can also go a long way to offer reassurance that they are safe.

Next encourage children to find solutions. Brainstorm with them things that would help them feel better. Talk about which ideas are helpful and possible. If you are part of the solution, be sure you are doing things with your child rather than for your child. The goal of this is to help children learn to face and conquer their fears. It is moving away from their thinking, “this is bad,” to, “I can handle this.” This works by helping them feel confident to move through it and be okay on the other side, rather than avoiding the thing. This doesn’t mean forcing a screaming child through, it means providing time, space and reassurance to help them move though in a comfortable way.

Helpful parenting books include

Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking or Freeing Your Child from Anxiety both by Chansky

Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Rapee, Spence, Wignall and Cobham

Helpful children’s books include

Sometimes I Worry Too Much but Now I Know How to Stop by Huebner

Wemberly Worried by Henkes

Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Cook

Say “Yes” Whenever You Can

As parents we tend to say “no” often. I think many of us say “no” to the things our children ask of us without even stopping to think. “No” is just the first thing or the easy thing to say. As a preschool teacher, I’ve learned to make “yes” my default answer. I stop and think before answering and say “yes” as often as I can. When children need more glue for their project, even if I think they have enough, the answer is “yes.” If they want to leave their block tower standing rather than clean up and the space is available, the answer is “yes.” Life is more fun and children are happier.

I remember eating lunch with Claire when she was three years old. She had her hot pizza in one hand and a spoon of cold yogurt in her other. She said, “can I put my yogurt on my pizza?” My first thought was “no, gross,” but instead I asked, “are you going to eat it?” She answered an enthusiastic, “yes!” So I said, “okay.” She spread yogurt all over her pizza and then ate the whole thing. She was happy and it was one less “no” we all had to deal with. Had she spread yogurt on her pizza, and then not eaten it, but asked again the next day, that answer would be a “no.” In this case the “yes” worked, and she enjoyed spreading yogurt on almost everything else she ate that month.

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

A Friend’s Child is Aggressive

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am feeling stuck in a difficult situation. I have three children under five years old, and have been fortunate to be friends with our neighbor who has four children, three in the same age range. It was a great situation, we live so close and the kids enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, one of her children has been diagnosed with special needs and has become increasingly aggressive towards my children in the last year. When the kids first became friends, he was only aggressive towards his own siblings, but now it is towards my kids, and it’s often. Recently, he pushes, scratches, headbutts, hits or kicks my oldest every time they play together. The behavior is impulsive and erratic, most times my child isn’t doing anything to provoke, and it can happen with an adult right beside them. One minute they are playing, the next he is pushing or scratching. The most frustrating thing is that my oldest (who has been the repeated victim) head butted his own younger sibling yesterday, something I never thought would happen. I don’t want my children hurt, and I don’t want them learning the behavior. I am also fearful this child is really going to hurt someone. My concern is such that I don’t want my children to play with this aggressive child. How do I handle things with the neighbor? What do I tell my son about the aggression, so he’s not confused by being hurt by a playmate and doesn’t learn the bad behavior? Also, I am fine with the other children in the family, they all play nicely. Can I invite just them? We’ve become good friends with the neighbors ourselves and go out together and celebrate occasions together. Is there a way to keep the other relationships and avoid play with the one who is having such difficulty and seems to be getting worse?


Concerned Mom of Three

Dear Concerned,

There are so many questions here with lots of options. Your primary concern is and should be your own children, their safety and what they are learning from these incidents. Part of the message they are getting rests in the follow-up that happens when this child is aggressive. Are you or the other parent addressing the behavior? Some parents give up as it happens so often and chalk it up to how kids play. If this is the case, your child is learning that behavior gets a pass. If the mom is addressing well each time with consequences and coaching how to play nicely often, hopefully your child is also seeing this piece to understand it is an unwanted or unacceptable behavior. If you continue to play as things are, I think you’ll need to address with the mom how this should be handled each time. Ask that it be consistently addressed when the children are playing together. Be sure you are both comfortable with being able to follow through. Even with a consistent follow through, your children are learning from his behavior. That they see aggression in play makes it more available as a behavior to try themselves.

If you choose to continue the play, you might try to change the play that is available. Children tend to be more aggressive in unstructured open play. You might limit play to field trips, bowling or movies. When they are at the house, you might invite them over for painting on big paper then snack and goodbyes. The idea is to fill their time rather than just go play. We had a relative whose child was particularly aggressive when the girls were little. We talked about it and for a few years opted to just get together for outings rather than open play. Honestly, there were hurt feelings, but a few years later we were able to go back to regular play.

You might also have one parent “shadow” him. In our preschool shadowing would mean one teacher stays within arms reach. This is so they might see it coming and be able to intervene early or at least stop it quickly if it starts. The idea would be to allow play but be watching and close at all times.

You and mom might also look for triggers and cues for the aggression. While you say it seems to happen out of the blue, likely there are things that set him off and signs he gives before the aggression. Triggers might be another child having a toy he wants, being told no, very close physical play or having to wait. Triggers are the things that set him off, and, if you can learn what they are, you have a better chance to intervene. Cues are signs he’s about to be aggressive. Some children get tense shoulders, others get a wild look in their eyes or their voice goes up a notch. The idea is to look and listen for cues and intervene on the cue rather than the behavior that follows.

All this is a lot of effort and assumes you are going to continue the play. I think you are also perfectly reasonable to decide to end the play at least for now. If this is the case, you can offer to maintain the play with the other children in the family, but be prepared for the mom to decline. It may be too difficult for her to separate her children this way. You can also suggest keeping the parent relationship going, but again this may be declined.

Either way you go with the above, you will have to speak with the mom. When you do, this avoid blaming her or her children. Talk about your concerns for the safety of all, that your children have started being more aggressive with each other recently, and you are working to curb that. Or, you could just opt to let this whole relationship go quietly. This means to stop making the invites and politely decline when invitations are made.  Eventually, she may push you for an explanation and giving that is up to you.

I hope something in here is helpful.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Social Skills Tips

  • A child’s social and emotional development are intertwined. If child is having difficulty in one area, it likely spills over to the other. Teaching emotion language and about emotions lays foundation for social development.
  • Social competence in children is described most simply as their ability to play while keeping friends. If your child’s play isn’t going well, it’s good to look what is happening with social skills.
  • It is best to coach social skills when all is well. Don’t wait til you are on the heels of an upset, coach social skills over snack or when you are tucking them in at night.
  • It’s fine to coach social with you, but it’s best to practice with peers. This means have playdates, go to the playground looking for others to connect with, join sports and other group activites.
  • When there are social conflicts, it’s good to step in, but let children do as much of the actual problem solving as they can. Provide guidance, walk them through decision making.
  • Teaching social skills can take a long time and a lot of repeated effort. Try to vary what and how you say or present things each time, come up with new stories or examples.

Correcting Manners

Dear Dr. Rene,

We had a grown-up visitor who taught my daughter to burp at the table. I didn’t like this at all, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I kept my mouth shut. What is the best way to handle this situation without upsetting anybody?

Katya, Mother of One

Dear Katya,
I don’t think you would be rude at all saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s not okay at our table.” It’s brief and direct without an upset. If given with a straight face, that should be enough to curb your guest and send a clear message to your child.
Dr. Rene

>Life Lessons at 2

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I am writing to ask if your classes cover how to teach toddlers, more specifically – the parents, the important “rules?” Our 2 ½ year-old son decided to leave the house alone to find me after I left to walk the dog. Someone was definitely looking over us tonight as a policeman found him. I know that how we handled the situation did not sync-in, and he doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation. We have worked on how to ensure he cannot go out of the house without someone, but how do we teach the “life” lessons that are so important?

Please let me know if there is a specific class that helps to address this or if you can help us with private counseling.

Mother of 2 ½ year-old son

Dear Maura,

I wish I had a better answer for you, but no matter how you handle a situation like this, a 2 1/2 year-old may not realize the gravity of it. They have little to no appreciation for the “what ifs” in life and only a slight sense of past and future happenings.

With that said, it can be helpful to keep your emotional response of fear and worry in these moments. If you shift to anger (which many folks do), you may lose impact as they see you angry far more often than they see you afraid or worried.

You might also try to replay the positive behaviors; this means saying, “You ask before you open the doors” and then practicing him asking to open the exterior doors. Do this repeatedly, and remind him every time he goes to open a door to the outside. When he does finally remember to ask, reinforce by saying, “You asked, that is the safe thing to do!” This isn’t insurance that it will work every time, nothing is, but it may go a long way toward lessening the behavior.

Work hard to ensure he can’t get out again; think high placed locks.

Rene Hackney, PhD.

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