Does it seem as if a big chunk of your family time happens on the road? Considering that Americans spend, on average, 290 hours a year driving, that’s not just frustration talking. This is a reality. That is more than seven work weeks, spent in the car. And, if you have teenagers, this might even be the only time you spend in one-on-one conversations where they can’t storm away and slam a door.
Here are some hacks for making that time the best family time it can be. Maybe you can turn this modern, mobile moment into some of the best time you have together.
Make the Car a Rule-Free Zone
Whatever rules you have about limiting time spent gaming or accessing the Internet at home? Suspend them for a road trip. I have overheard parents say, “When I was a kid, we were bored in the backseat. My kids can be bored, too.” I disagree. Past generations didn’t use seat belts, drove cars with no ABS brakes or air bags, and the cars were death traps, too. We know better. It’s unsafe. If you are distracted by bickering, whining, or kids getting antsy, you are distracted. And distracted driving accounts for approximately 10 percent of fatal crashes and 15 percent of injury crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Also, I doubt our parents logged as many hours in cars as we do. Turning a long road trip into a gaming and Internet rule-free zone also makes a car trip something kids consider fun and doable, which makes your life easier and your family time in the car more fun.
Got a commute? Do Homework in the Car
If your car time is commute time, harness that wasted hour for homework. Kids spend a lot of time sitting still in school. Add a commute to that time and you are asking them to turn off their natural impulse to move around and have fun for most of the day. If you get the homework done in the car, they can let off steam when they get home. Stock the back seat with a tablet, laptop, and other tools they need to get at least some of the homework done before they get home. If they need help with math or other topics that you can’t provide while driving, tell them to ask Sal Khan of Khan Academy to explain it to them. Kids in elementary school through college will find short, amusing videos explaining everything that comes up in school, all free, at this excellent site. Kids can watch the parts they don’t grasp immediately over and over again without irritating anyone. This alone can save homework.
Get an Internet Connection
Whether you drive a car with built-in 4G, stash a Wi-Fi hotspot in the glove box, or tether your own phone to provide Internet, set this up when you are in the driveway and make sure everyone can log into the network before you hit the road. (You have to do this only once. Your devices will remember the connection.) Whether this is your daily commute or a long road trip, giving Internet access to back-seat laptops and tablets can turn this from time wasted to productivity or entertainment time. Just make sure that everyone understands that streaming music and videos will eat up your data connection.
Protect your gear
No matter what age your kids are, putting the tablet or phone into a protective case will save you some hassles and money. This is a moving vehicle. Spilling, dropping, and accidents happen. ZAGG makes an inexpensive Rugged Messenger keyboard line that is perfect for turning your iPad or other tablet into a protected and useful in-car productivity or entertainment device.
Mount your phone
Set a good example for the kids in the back seat by being a responsible phone user. Fourteen states have laws banning hand-held phone use in the car. It’s not safe. If you are using the phone for navigation, put it in a phone mount. (It’s less annoying anyway.) They are not expensive and there are some great magnetic ones or easy clamp ones. They mount to your car by clipping onto a vent grate, sticking to the dash or window, or fitting neatly into a cup holder. Look at your car and decide which is right for you. The cup holder ones are great but only work if they put your phone in a spot that is easy to see. And many states ban mounts that attach to the windshield. Choose one that works for you and your vehicle and get that phone use under control.
Listen to a book
If your road trip is starting to feel like a study in modern family alienation – with everyone staring at their own screens, connected to the Internet – take control of your car’s interior mind space and play an Audible book everyone will enjoy using the app on your phone, connected via Bluetooth to your car’s audio system. On a long drive, you can get all the way through a book that’s required for school or that you enjoyed as a child. Even after the book is over, you might find the whole family discussing the plot or characters. Enjoying books is what develops a passion for reading. So this does much more for kids’ education than any amount of learning to be bored in the back seat.
Let the Kids be the DJ
There is a valuable resource sitting in your backseat: Your kids love of music. Rather than insist you don’t understand what the kids listen to, ask them to DJ for everyone in the car. You might be surprised to discover bands you love or even that your kids have discovered bands you love. Either way, it will give you something to connect over that isn’t TV. If your car has a Bluetooth connection and your kids have a smart phone, this is easy. (Though you might have to set up the connection when the car isn’t moving.) Just ask them to connect their phone to the car and play some music everyone will enjoy. I did this with my kids on long road trips. Not only did it let them know that I find their interests interesting, it encouraged them to take of their headphones and share what they were listening to. Eventually, they prepped a playlist in advance of every trip. They discovered each other’s tastes. And I listen to some of that music, even when my kids aren’t around.
Let the Kids Navigate
Kids got a smart phone? Ask them to fire up Google Maps and navigate to your destination. It’s best if you do this the first few times when you know where you are going so there is no pressure. Then, when you actually need help navigating, they will already know what to do. But you aren’t doing this just because you are lost. You are teaching your kids a valuable lesson: How to get unlost in the modern world. They might need it sometime when you aren’t driving. Or, because you did this regularly, they probably won’t. Because they will go into the world confident that they can find their way around in it.