How to Not Kill Your Kids on a Cross Country Road Trip

a rental RV parked in a parking lot alongside the road

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Word to the wanderers – If you have a kid, and you’re flirting with the idea of an RV excursion with a child in tow, there are a few things you should know before packing up that Baby Bjorn.

Long travel days require 2-4 hour pushes without stopping. That’s a hell of a long stretch for you, let alone a little one. Implementing various devices, ploys, bribes, and schemes will assist you in navigating the unforeseeable mood swings of a youngster. Here are a few tips which I hope will not only make the RV family road trip a pleasant and memorable experience for your child, but may also aid in preventing a potential murder from taking place somewhere around Tulsa.

The Tablet

a young girl in a carseat in an RV playing on a tablet while her smiling mom and dad drive on down the road
Kiddos content, mom and dad are happy, too!

As a general rule, my wife Shannon and I do our best to limit our daughter Frankie’s screen time. However, on a cross-country venture of this magnitude, we both agreed for the sake of our marriage and our sanity, that now might be a good time to bend the rules. The only tablet available was mine, a brand new Amazon Fire, which after a month on the road in the clutches of a toddler, has never worked the same since.

Don’t make the same mistake I did by lending your personal tablet to your child. If you have the means, I highly recommend getting your kid her very own device and be sure to go with the child-proof version with the bulky protective case. Don’t forget to download at least 4-5 programs before the train leaves the station. And don’t count on a strong WIFI signal to maintain its integrity from one town to the next. Take full advantage of those VOD subscriptions and secure your video playlist safely in the cloud before lift off. Your child probably has her favorites already, but if you’re looking for some recommendations, both entertaining and educational, here are a few of our go-to’s : Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Elinor Wonders Why, Cocomelon, the Super Simple Songs Series and of course our furry friend who helped us get through a global pandemic unscathed – the one, the only – Daniel Tiger.

Throughout a typical day, a child will invariably touch an array of things – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips and guac, or the remnants of a runny nose to name a few. Due to the arbitrary and often violent acts of swiping regularly taking place, an amalgam of secretions will inevitably make their way from your child’s hands onto the respective tablet, thereby creating an impenetrable film on par with a polycarbonate coating. To remove the aforementioned veneer, I’d recommend having a stack of wipes and washcloths nearby at all times, accompanied by an array of solutions you’d likely find on the site of an oil spill.

Though the tablet may assist in buying you an hour or two of uninterrupted travel, at a certain point, even your kid will grow weary of staring at a screen. When that moment arrives, rarely will the child neatly place the tablet on the seat next to her. In the case of our child, we know Frankie’s reached her limit when we see the tablet hurtling through the air, across the RV, generally in the direction of the dog. The dog has also never been the same since. After reprimanding the child for her actions, examining the tablet for damage and finding the dog a therapist, I’d recommend tweaking your game plan a smidge before proceeding to the next rest stop.

For God’s Sake, Pull Over!

A key advantage to RV life is your ability to pull over at any place, at any time, for any reason. One key reason may be the fact that your child is having a complete and total meltdown and no amount of books, toys or tablet time seem to do the trick. As I’ve learned on my parental journey thus far, the most effective means to stop a hurricane child from reaching a category 4, is to deflect, distract and at times, simply change the scenery. In RV life, these theories still apply.

sweeping canyon view
Not a bad change of scenery.

Frankie typically has on average, 1-2 blow-ups a day. These outbursts are normal. This is simply the child’s way of communicating to the parents that she needs their attention…like now! On one occasion, Frankie was inconsolable. Nothing would calm this child down. After a 20 minute barrage of sobbing and ear piercing screams, I lost it. Abruptly, I pulled the RV over to the side of the road, threw it in park, trudged back to Frankie in a huff and to my surprise, discovered a totally calm, contented child. It was as if the tears and tantrums hadn’t even occurred. She was practically giggling at me. Perhaps my child was likely playing me for a fool, as she often does. Though I suspect my assessment was spot-on, I was so relieved to avert a crisis, that I was all too happy to be the butt of the joke, whatever the joke may be. Sometimes, when you run out of options, the best thing to do is stop.

Once you have stopped, take a moment. Breathe. Remind your child to breathe. To quote the sage Daniel Tiger, it’s a good time to ‘countdown to calm down in 5-4-3-2-1.’ That shit works. Remove your child from the baby seat she’s been strapped in for the past 3 hours and let her stretch it out, get the blood flowing. If it’s hot and stuffy in the RV – splurge! Throw on your generator for a minute or two and get some AC in the mix. Better yet, if you’re parked in a safe place, get outside and go for a stroll. Take the dog for a walk. Get some fresh air and take in the scenery. Whether you’re overlooking a wind-swept wheat field in the prairies of Nebraska or you’re dumping your waste in the RV lot of a Pilot Flying J – there’s beauty to be found everywhere.

a young girl walks near a giant cross, and a second photo of her dad, in a mask, looking into the RV window at her
Frankie, distracted.

While on a stroll with Frankie, Shannon would usually throw together a sandwich or a snack, so she’d have a little treat waiting for her when she got back. This brief respite is also an opportune time to change a diaper, round up some books and stuffed animals and load up a bottle of milk before hitting the road. With any luck, your child will reward you with a solid 2 hour nap. And if all else fails, there’s always chloroform.

Quick, Throw On That Nashville Soundtrack!

Though my wife and I made various attempts throughout our trip to engage Frankie in a good old fashioned game of ‘I Spy’ or ‘Peek-A-Boo,’ results were often mixed and lacked any meaningful longevity. Sure, she may giggle for a good 5-10 minutes after you’ve shifted your reflected rear-view visage into the kid’s eye line for the umpteenth time. But like so many toddlers with the attention span of a fruit-fly, don’t count on these games to have much of a shelf-life.

a young girl walks through a field at sunset
Made it to the end of another day!

We’re a musical family. We’ve been singing songs to our daughter almost every night since the day we brought her home from the hospital. Some of Frankie’s favorites include, ‘Something in the Way She Moves,’ ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ by James Taylor, ‘Once Upon Another Time’ by Sara Bareilles, and Joni Mitchell’s entire catalog, well, at least up until ‘Hejira,’ after which Joni gets a little too experimental for her taste.

But for some reason, one album puts all of these artists to shame. One record has the ability to transport my daughter to another realm, where she’s either the song’s lead singer or a rapt spectator waiting for the needle to drop. I’m speaking of course of the classic 2013 release, ‘The Music of Nashville Season 2, Volume 1.’

I’ve never seen the show Nashville. I know practically nothing about the TV series. But in 2016, when I bought my used Ford Fusion Hybrid, I discovered that a few albums had already been pre-programmed into the car’s stereo system. One of which was this particular Nashville Soundtrack.

During our first year of parenthood, when Frankie was restless, we often implemented the tried and true method of throwing the baby into the car for a naptime drive. After trying a variety of talk shows and radio stations in search of the right blend of tranquility to dispatch our distraught newborn, Shannon decided to give the Nashville record a go. Almost on a dime, the tears stopped. Frankie began waving her little hand up and down, keeping rhythm with the vocal stylings of Chris Cormac on the upbeat opening number, ‘What If I Was Willing.’ By the time the third track rolled around, ‘A Life That’s Good,’ a breezy folk tune underscored by the blood harmony of real-life sisters Lennon and Maisy, Frankie was down for the count.

Music has been and will forever remain a key component in any successful road trip. It’s a rite of passage to explore the highways and byways of America accompanied by a propulsive soundtrack. Though I’m partial to 70s classic rock, 90s hip-hop and the progressive stylings of jam bands, Umphrey’s McGee, Phish and the Disco Biscuits, once a kid joins the party, there are certain times it’s best to put your musical proclivities aside. In short, to help navigate the ebbs and flows of a toddler on a cross country jaunt, I’d recommend you find your very own Nashville – Season 2, Volume 1 Original Soundtrack, keep it in the rotation, rinse and repeat.