Surviving the family road trip

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2013 - 12:04 PM

DVDs, iPads and Nintendos have revolutionized the family road trip. But savvy parents still encourage their kids to unplug.

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Photo: Reed Saxon, Associated Press

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Katie Smith has fond memories of driving vacations when she was a kid, of long stretches in the back seat with her two sisters. “We played some of the time, fought some of the time, slept some of the time,” she said. “We sang songs, played the license-plate game, had a little travel Bingo.”

That’s why Smith, now an Apple Valley mother of three, made sure her kids got a chance to play some of the old-fashioned games on a recent family trip to the Black Hills. “We had periods where they put down their iPads and iPhones,” she said.

Since the advent of minivans with built-in DVD players, the family road trip has changed markedly as the digital age has accelerated. Individual electronic devices have made travel more palatable for some families, but parents say that just plugging in doesn’t make for smooth sailing. And some worry that together time — and memories — might be lost.

“The family car trip is a ritual predicated on ‘the experience,’ ” said Carol J. Bruess, a University of St. Thomas professor. “When technologies replace the authentic, back-and-forth, often mundane conversation that literally creates and sustains our relationships, what do we have left? Not much.”

William Doherty agrees. “If everybody is on their own device and one person is driving, you might as well be sitting on different parts of a bus,” said Doherty, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science.

Mixed memories

That doesn’t mean anyone is eager to return to the days of endless rounds of “I Spy” on the bench seat of the family station wagon.

Even Doherty.

But while he admitted that modern devices can cut the tedium of a long drive, he said family memories aren’t made only from the fun times.

“Here’s the thing about extended family vacations: Some of the worst times become great memories,” he said. “Somebody throwing up in the back seat, or the fights, which make you crazy, they become good memories.”

Colleen Kelly, host of the upcoming PBS series “Family Travel With Colleen Kelly,” has plenty of those kinds of memories.

“My father remembers the good old days of family road trips, looking out the car window, breathing in the fresh country air,” she said. “However, what I remember is, after demolishing all the snacks, drinks and games, boredom setting in and, thus, us constantly bickering over whose knee was over the line in the middle of the back seat.

“But I also remember singing our own made-up family songs. … We were trapped in a car together for eight hours, so we made our own games and in doing so, made our own family memories that I remember fondly and still practice with my children today — until they get bored and get on their iTouches, of course.”

Unplugged travel

Most parents who embrace family road trips say they let their kids use their devices, but also plan creative activities that everyone can enjoy.

“We bought a [Toyota] Sienna just for the express purposes of being able to go on trips,” said Chanhassen’s Jerome Reutzel, who has two teenage sons. “There’s enough room that we can haul all kinds of stuff in it. There’s a DVD player, iPod hookups. It’s a complete entertainment center.

“But we also incorporate stops in parks, or we’ll do stuff like think about movies and my boys will do impersonations and get to giggling so hard we almost have to stop the car.”

Some parents have banned electronics altogether.

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