A silly ritual marks the start of all my family’s road trips.
“Here we go!” my husband announces as he shifts our Honda CR-V into drive. “The first six inches of our trip to [insert destination here]!”
Then, he pulls out of the driveway.
On our last trip, to a state park back in June, he forgot to make his pronouncement, so he pulled back into the driveway and started over. Our daughter Jianna smiled and shook her head. Even at the persnickety age of 15, she enjoys the exaggerated sense of ceremony that kicks off our road holidays.
Teens can be a tough audience—not least when they’re sitting in a car with their parents for eight hours. But there are ways to engage your bundles of emerging independence and make lasting memories. Here are my best tips:
Set Road Rules
You come upon a breathtaking red rock formation or a gorgeous mountain vista. “Look out the window, quick!” you say to your teen, who glances up for a second from her phone/iPad/other electronic device.
“Oh yeah, that’s pretty,” she says, immediately re-immersing in technology.
Scenes like that became so familiar in our family that my husband and I decided to set some boundaries. Technology is allowed in the car—but only after dark. Other families might want to put time limits on screens, or allow them only after you’ve driven a certain distance or number of hours. (Or if you’re on a particularly dull stretch of highway.)
Plan Ways to Connect
You and your teens might want some independent time even when you’re together in the car. But it’s worth using some of those hours to do things together.
One of our favorite ways to bond on the road is to take turns reading chapters from a book aloud. We’ve made it through countless classics. S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” was a favorite. Now, we’re on book three of Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series. Before a recent trip, Jianna said, “Can we read ‘Earthsea’ on the way? I need to know what happens with Ged!”
We keep our book-in-process in the glove compartment, ready to go. Over the years, reading aloud has led to rich discussions about what we would do if faced with a character’s conflict or how social issues can be solved.
You don’t have to stick with fiction—what about biographies of famous athletes or other motivational figures? You can also share trivia books and crossword puzzles. If listening is more your style, buy or borrow an audiobook instead.
You might also talk about family history or your past travels. Have you ever printed out blank U.S. maps, so your family can shade in areas you’ve visited? Families have different rules about what constitutes a “visit”—does passing through count? Touching the ground? Spending an hour? Let your family decide yours.
Traditions don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. They can be as simple as eating at the same seafood restaurant every time you head to the beach. You could have a ritual for crossing the border of a state or country—like singing a song that mentions the place you’ve arrived in.
A little competition can help keep things interesting. Consider playing classic road-trip games like “I’m going on a picnic.” You can customize them to your family’s tastes—hold a family spelling bee that’s limited to terms from Harry Potter or Game of Thrones! Does the winner get a title? The right to choose the next stop or playlist?
It’s important to support your kids’ growing autonomy even when you’re on vacation together. Give them the freedom to make as many choices as possible.
Allow for selection and autonomy. Give teens agency to make choices. If they are adamant about seeing “The Lost Lake” or a spot their favorite idol once visited, make space for it even if you think it’s (rightly) a complete waste of time. Let them choose your dinner restaurant even if it sounds dreadful. And whenever possible, let teens explore alone, even if that just means letting them wander a nearby boardwalk—or the hotel lobby. It might just be their lasting memory.