Summer vacation. Doesn’t the very phrase conjure up images of sun-soaked days by the pool, beach, or lake … days that bleed seamlessly into night, with no homework, no schedule, and no bedtime? That’s how I remember our summer vacations from my childhood, which were spent at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.
What’s hazier are my memories of the long 16-hour drive to Missouri and back home. Contrary to my own cross-country drives with kids, I don’t remember these car trips being very stressful. So I sat down and asked my mom what her secrets were for keeping those long car trips stress-free.
1Play car games
As soon as my mom said this, it all came flooding back … The license plate game! The ABC game! The Slug Bug game! We played endless games on those car trips, some well-known car trip standards (finding a license plate from every state, finding a word that starts with a certain letter on the signs we passed) and some games of our own invention. Regardless how silly those games were, what made them captivating was our parents’ willingness to play them along with us. This kept the game a family affair and prevented us kids from descending into bickering and arguments.
2Let each child bring a form of entertainment
Of course, I spent the vast majority of most car trips with my head in a book … hence the reason my recollections are fuzzy. But it turns out that my mom strategically stocked up on half-price books for just that reason — to keep me occupied. For my less-bookwormy siblings, she would bring alternate forms of entertainment. My little brothers got magnetic boards they could sit in their lap and draw endless pictures, and my older sister packed her Walkman and pillow — by far her two favorite forms of entertainment. When the games got old, we each had separate areas of interest to turn to.
3Give each child their own space
This is one part of family trips that I absolutely do remember. It was so crucial that we each had our own space … my sister and I had the middle bench of the family suburban, and my little brothers had the back. No one had to sit right next to another human, which probably did more to keep the peace than the rest of this list combined. This careful allocation of space was so crucial that last summer, we rented a 15-passenger van to go to New Mexico, since cramming 8 people in a 7-passenger car was out of the question. You know what that 15-passenger van brought us? Peace. Endless, glorious peace.
4Sing family songs
Inevitably, though, tensions rose. Usually about 10 hours in, someone would get bored, or stiff, or just plain grumpy and the bickering would begin. At these moments, my mom’s gift for diffusing tension through hilarity would shine. She’d cut into the middle of the argument with a well-chosen off-label Sunday School song (on one memorable occasion, she broke up an argument over who was lying with a spirited rendition of “Revelation, Revelation, 21:8, 21:8, / Liars go to hell, Liars go to hell, / Burn burn burn, / burn burn burn”). Once we all wiped the tears of laughter from our eyes, we would join in and sing all our favorite songs.
5Pray out loud
The first thing my dad did when we got in the car was turn on the ignition and start the A/C (it was summer in Texas, after all). But the second thing he did was pray out loud. First, he thanked God for the opportunity to take a vacation, then he asked for the blessing of safety and joy during our vacation.
Gradually, more families began joining us for these summer expeditions, and my dad’s prayer eventually became a kind of group benediction. We would meet in a central location and all the kids and adults would pile out of the cars, stand in a big circle, and my dad would lead us in the same, familiar prayer he’d been saying from the driver’s seat for years. It was always a sacred moment that lent a kind of holiness to our expedition, reminding us all (children and adults alike) that God was always with us and, I suspect, preparing our hearts to be peaceful rather than rancorous.
Whether your summer vacation is a 16-hour road trip or a 4-hour flight, these tips are great ways to keep the stress down and help start (and end) your vacation on a peaceful, happy note.
10 Catholic novels to take to the beach this summer
How to plan a vacation that’s truly restorative