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.
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.
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.”
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.
“We don’t use any screens on trips,” said St. Louis Park’s Gabriel Skelly, who takes her three children (10, 5 and 1) on trips to the Black Hills and Grand Marais every summer. “We play word games and listen to book tapes in the car.”
Gwen Sturrock of Marshall, Minn., just completed what she called “a DVD-free” three-week driving trip with her 6- and 4-year-olds. Every year, she gets the boys “a few more toys and more music and books on tape,” and makes lots of stops when they’re on the road. “I think the kids learn a lot by self-entertaining,” she said.
‘Busy and engaged’
Like Sturrock, Jen Newburg of St. Paul focuses on games, books on CD and even learning experiences when the family, which includes a 5- and an 8-year-old, goes on vacation. “Now, with our trips often being to national parks, we’ll talk a lot about geography and geology and how the country changes,” she said.
The Newburg kids do a little bit of everything: sticker books, Playmobil pieces, pipe-cleaner animals, Klutz arts and crafts books, and a lot of improvised games.
“That’s our secret,” Newburg said, “to keep their hands busy and brains engaged.”
Nicole Kopp of White Bear Lake hasn’t been that lucky. “We have TVs built into the van, a Nintendo DS, a Kindle, a Motorola Xoom, a Leapster, coloring books, reading books, DVDs, snacks and nothing entertains them long enough,” said Kopp, whose kids are 8 and 4. “When I was a kid, we went for drives and just read or played. These days there has to be electronics, and sometimes that doesn’t even satisfy them.”
Even Smith has struggled to keep her kids engaged. Despite all of her preparations for the family trip to the Black Hills, she got the question every parent dreads: “Within a few minutes of leaving the house, my youngest asked if we were almost there.”