A recent episode of "The New Adventures of Old Christine" showcased an ill-fated attempt at a family vacation. Delayed flights, crazy routings, lost IDs, snotty airline personnel, family tensions - it was all there. But what really caught my attention was this: Christine's 13-year-old son wanted to bring his Nintendo DS, and his mom wouldn't let him, saying, "This is a family vacation! We're going to talk and spend time together!" His response? "Talk? What? You ruin everything!"
Really? His life is ruined because he's not allowed to take his video game along on a family vacation? I thought this line was a little over the top - until I started asking around. Most of my mommy friends confirmed that when they travel, their kids have cell phones, iPods, DVD players, video games, you name it. The backseat of the family car has become a fully-equipped media center. No one needs to talk to each other. Kids don't even have to cooperate and decide which movie to watch, because most of their cars now have dual-screen DVD players. And Mom doesn't even have to listen to the soundtrack of the Hannah Montana movie for the 725th time, because each child has her own headphones, too.
This new concept of entertainment stands in stark contrast to the vacations most of us remember. Family vacations of my childhood were decidedly unplugged. My parents would put down the back seats of the station wagon, we'd all unroll our sleeping bags, and the party would begin. We didn't have electronic gadgets to divert our attention from the scenery. There were no dual-screen DVD players - in fact, no TV of any kind. No, we had to create our own fun in the backseat. The license plate game, Mad Libs, a rousing rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" (or something even less appropriate that my parents couldn't hear, like "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School"), negotiating for each other's Slim Jim or Bubblicious stashes, or even - gasp - READING a BOOK! Sometimes my brothers would introduce a super-fun game called "Roly Poly" - you know, the one where they'd sit on either side of me, and as we rounded a corner, they'd squish me in between them. Fun.
Yes, we got on each others' nerves, but we quickly learned to get along and find something fairly quiet to do - or face the dreaded "if I have to stop this car..." threat. (I'm not sure what my parents would've done if they'd had to pull over, but back then, the threat alone was enough to strike fear into the hearts of children of all ages. We never found out, but we never WANTED to find out.) Sometimes we got bored, yes, but God forbid we say that out loud - our parents would start "entertaining" us with show tunes or long, boring stories about their childhood tribulations. (You know, walking to school, 3 miles, in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. You get the picture.) No, it was much safer to entertain ourselves and each other. But you know what? I don't have a single childhood memory that doesn't involve my brothers. Our family vacations? True family moments. We fought, and made up, and shared, and played, and interacted with each other. Isn't that what we want for our kids?
Now, I'm not advocating abandoning seat belts and booster seats here (or threatening your kids, although we've all been there), but why do we feel the need to constantly provide entertainment for our kids? Why can't they entertain themselves? And why do so many kids sit isolated, plugged in, during "family" time?
For my kids? It's kind of sink or swim when we travel. They'd better find a way to entertain themselves, because I don't want to hear the words "Are we there yet?" (Um, did I stop the car? Is the plane still flying? Then no, we're not there yet!) or "I'm bored!" (Really? I'm driving; you're playing. Who's bored? That's right. Zip it.) We don't have a built-in DVD player. (We do have a portable DVD player, but I can't figure out how to install it in the car - so my kids don't get to watch movies on long car rides. And I can't find the battery pack, so they can't take it on the plane. What can I say? I'm a slacker.) My kids don't have iPods, cell phones, or a DS. My cell phone has no games, music, or internet access. Nope, when we travel - by car or by air - my kids listen to CDs, audio books, the radio. And they are subjected to my singing along to their music. My kids read, color, play magnetic games. They make up elaborate stories. Color Wonder, Colorforms, pipe cleaners and beads, Polly Pockets - these are the staples of my girls' carry-ons. My kids talk to each other - and to me. Sure, I've had to get creative at times: Airsick bags make great hats for stuffed animals; stickers plus craft sticks equals instant puppet show. And never underestimate the power of a really good book. But bored? I don't want to hear it. If you're bored, it's your own fault.
Slacker Mom Says... let's all stop trying to play Vegas-style entertainer for our kids when we travel. They can find something to do! Let's bring back the family conversation, the license plate game, I Spy, and Twenty Questions. Let's find ways to truly spend time together, even on the long and boring drive to Disney World in the July heat. I'm not saying you can't pack the electronics; I'm just saying let's not rely on them totally. Families are so busy these days; let's take any opportunity we can to spend real time together. We're building the memories of a lifetime here. Besides, subjecting our kids to our singing and storytelling will give them something to complain to their friends about after they get back home.