are we there yet?

I clicked on this topic, interested to expand my ingenuity to distract children on a long drive or transatlantic flight. We played games to keep five boys from fidgeting and fighting during road trips when my (now middle aged) sons were small, growing up in England. We visited distant grandparents, camped in France and Spain in a Hiace van because we couldn’t afford air fares for seven, never mind hotels, and sometimes, rented a seaside cottage in Wales for our summer holidays. “Awesome” is a clue: it’s an American site. Let’s see how it’s done today.


They start with a photo of baskets of toys you can buy to amuse the children, as well as an opportunity to “follow” the author. Under the title “Create a kid-friendly travel kit” you can Share, Tweet, Pin, Share Tumble, or Save, and after that click on “Comment Now” to join the discussion or share on social media. There must be so much I can learn in this information age and I’m always open to new ideas.

“Whether you are traveling with toddlers or teens, it is important to be prepared with games, technology and activities — a travel kit, if you will — to help keep them entertained and happy while you are heading to your destination.”

A mother of three commented, “On long plane rides we brought little presents wrapped to give one every hour. It might be a non-sugary snack, coloring book and colors, small puzzle or game, small toys, all inexpensive but fun. The key is to wrap them, as it takes time to unwrap, thus burning part of the air time. On a few occasions we would use the next gift as leverage to keep them behaving until we passed the next one out.” (I thought of airline staff processing the litter.)

Airplane-interior“It would feel like Christmas on that plane ride!” the author continued. “You can also put together an airplane travel kit, such as this one from **** **** that contains crayons, finger puppets, a magnifying glass and more.” There were more illustrations of tat to keep brats occupied. Every item mentioned costs money, you notice.

Is it necessary to make a plane trip seem like Christmas? What about looking down at clouds and up at infinite sky? Years ago I recall a stranger’s child at 7,000 ft. remarking with wonder, “The sun is shining up here!” as we rose above rain clouds. He was enchanted and so was I. Children are entitled to consider fellow passengers and speculate where they are going: anticipate the snack trays for the next meal: read the book in their backpack: watch a film on a transatlantic flight: take a nap or chat to their sibling. Maybe play a game on a tablet; we also move with the times.

On the website there’s an illustration subtitled “Natural family today” which shows parents and two kids with straight teeth and designer clothes, every hair in place, looking mildly entertained on a sunny day.

“Of course, technology is often a life saver on an airplane. In addition to activity books, an iPhone filled with fun free or 99 cent educational games goes a long way,” says the owner of a vacations business, thereby getting another plug. “For $99 or less, a portable DVD player and some movies to make the ride more enjoyable is a great option.” Presumably he sells these too.

Next is a paragraph about the best apps suggested by a “technology insider.” So many experts! Not an innovative parent in sight. Nine products are brand named here, including “a physics-based puzzle game featuring zero-gravity space adventures and more. Cards are another fun way to keep kids entertained while traveling, and what about road trips?”

My inner eye slides back to us 30-40 years ago, each keeping a personal score for spotting the next named object: telephone box (that dates it), electricity pylon, a red car, a blue car, motor cycle, daffodil, cow, horse and so on, and best of all, a horse box (ten bonus points for a horse box!). Fierce competition to spot the item first kept them focused for hours.

Another favorite competition: Who can keep a peppermint whole in his mouth the longest? We pass around the kind with a hole in the middle, tempting to explore the hole with your tongue, which speeds up its disintegration. Peter (the oldest and most savvy, tucks his mint into his cheek and steels himself to ignore it while the others try not to chew, but suck happily. Cautioned that speaking further melts the mint, a peaceful break ensues. To qualify the winner has to show the mint intact on his tongue. Time passes pleasantly. They sometimes drive me crazy chanting in unison the spiel to a popular candy advert on TV that starts: “What? What’s what? What’s-Its, that’s what!” and nothing will make them stop as they egg each other on, giggling.

crybaby“Bring along their phones, handheld gaming devices or an iPad and load it with movies to help pass the time. If you have a portable DVD player, stop at a Redbox along the way to drop off movies and pick up new ones. Break up the trip, get out of the car, and have the family pick the next movie for the next leg of the trip,” we are advised. “There are vending machines at most grocery stores and drugstores, making it easy to pick up and drop off movies along the way.” I picture the harassed driver hunting for DVD outlets in addition to watching the road.

Were these kids spoilt brats with short attention spans? They are now. The trip is planned around instant gratification and bribes for the next pit stop. Disruptive behavior used to be curbed by “Behave yourself!” in a sharp tone. What happened to that?

Meanwhile, back in my memory, we are playing “I spy,” a family favorite invoked at any moment over the years and still, with grandchildren. “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with T.” It has to be something actually visible at the moment spied (which of course may be left behind as the car or train speeds on). That is probably Tree, Trellis, Traffic, Telephone pole, Trunk, or suchlike. Peter (13) drives us crazy with his ingenuity. “Something beginning with WW” was Windscreen Wiper and “CN” might be Cumulus Nimbus, a stretch for his five year old twin brothers, who when it was their turn, would say “Something beginning with B!” which turned out to be ‘Sheep” because they didn’t really understand the game, but liked to join in, and they enjoyed our laughter.

“You can also pack up some fun road trip travel kits for the kids and Busy Baskets personalized for each kid.” Think of the effort that entails for the parent on top of preparations for the trip: reservations, tickets, laundry, packing, transport, paperwork, currency and… activity baskets.   Blogger S went to the dollar store and filled them with window markers, magnets (and a cookie sheet for them to stick to), activity books and more. It’s apparent these bloggers don’t have a limited housekeeping allowance like we did. What’s another hundred dollars on a creaking credit card? We didn’t have credit.

She adds, “To get some fun conversation going on those long car rides, I love the idea of Conversation Cards (illustrated). ” Apparently you can also print out a list of conversation topics from the internet that are “so much fun for the entire family.”

Back in the day we discussed “If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you like to be right now?” or “Who would you like to be?” and “What would you do if you won a million pounds?” We played “Who am I?” a game in which we imagined a famous person and the others had to guess with questions, and the answer could only be Yes or No. We told each other jokes. Kids’ jokes are often excruciating but they enjoyed them and that was the point. There wasn’t a Conversation Card in sight.

baby robinWe told serial stories. As each person paused, the next took up the story before passing it on to his brother. Cliffhangers challenged our imaginations. “This man was minding his own business when along came an angry elephant” ….. “with a nail in his trunk and the man pulled it out, to which the elephant replied” ….. “ ‘I will never forget your kindness’ and elephants are famous for their memories, like…” The more you could drop the next person in it, the better. Concentrate!

With a piece of string I showed them how to do Cat’s Cradle. I think daughters would have taken more readily to that. They all liked the absorbing game, “I am an Animal.” We had to add a clue, “and I live in the sea,” or the forest, the mountains, the jungle and so on. Or it could be “and I have a long nose,” or a fin, or two long legs. You didn’t need to be able to read to join in that one, so it’s fine for smaller ones if the animals are not obscure.

The blogger patronized: “Don’t be afraid to stop for a learning adventure with your kids. There are some awesome” (I loathe that done-to-death word) “apps that will help you find unique historical sites, monuments, museums and more on your journey,” naming the apps.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with apps in principle. What I am railing against here is the idea of cramming every moment with manufactured entertainment for kids and desperation to stave off rebellion that might result from lack of stimulation. Is there an app. for a minute’s silence for reflection? I might buy that. How about learning to read a map? Or have GPS systems replaced cartography?

Wang Fuchun“Plan on stopping for bathroom breaks, and to get out and walk around. Also, pack some snacks and drinks,” sounds superfluous to me. Of course you carry water and sandwiches; dehydration and hunger play havoc with mood. “Mum! I have to pee!” elicited a range of responses. If we were in a town we’d find a rest room. In the country they could pee in a field behind a hedge, or even in a lay-by with both car doors open to stand between, for privacy. A little boy adds no more pollution than a dog or cat, but it is probably illegal today. In extremis (driving through Le Mans in the rush hour, similar to the Washington beltway but with fewer lanes) we would use a lidded plastic pot. We still smile, remembering the time we couldn’t stop in the Pyrenees on a steep upward incline because we were already in bottom gear, and doubtful if the camping van would restart at that angle. “Mum! I feel sick!” “Open the window,” from me. Moments later, “I’m OK now, carry on.” With chagrin: “Mum! He threw up in my boot!” followed by gales of laughter.

Images: Muppets in car from the The Disney Muppets movie (promotional photo); Kids in overhead via Freaking News; Kids on Jet Windshield via; Baby Robin tying mommie to the tracks by Thiele Photography via their Facebook page; by Baby in a basket by Wang Fuchun.
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on

  1. Will Cantrell

    You brave, brave woman! You never cease to amaze me, Eileen. The fact that you actually traveled –and even camped out— with FIVE boys and made it out alive may be your best accomplishment yet. Good piece, Eileen. Will

  2. Terrific posting. I’m worn out just thinking of entertaining one kid while traveling, let alone five rambunctious sons. And I know four of the five. All are fine gentlemen now and none ever threw up in my boot so I think you did a grand job raising them and keeping them occupied on your road trips. Congrats.

  3. Trevor Stone Irvin


    Though there are obviously some very good ideas to be gleaned from your piece, and
    you seem to have employed a far more advanced form of parenting than I … but, I
    do feel my methods had value. I used a much simpler method to keep my kids
    quiet and behaved, the threat of imminent pain and death. I would lean over and
    sweetly whisper in their ears, “There is no problem I cannot fix with blunt
    trauma.” I swear it works wonders.



    1. Eileen Dight

      Yours are probably still wondering what ‘blunt trauma’ is. But whatever works for you….

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