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WHO TAUGHT YOU TO DRIVE?

How to keep kids merry on the road

LYNNE CLIFFORD

A photo from the Clifford family archives shows Medfield youngsters (from left) Peter, Jane, Julia, and Laura ready for a major road expedition in 2008.

It’s 4 a.m. at the Clifford house in Medfield, and one by one Joe and Lynne wake up their four children and march them out to the family minivan. Time for the family’s annual voyage to see the relatives in Nova Scotia, a mere 14 hours away.

That’s 700 miles’ worth of bathroom breaks, backseat squabbles, and battling boredom. How do they possibly survive?

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“There’s got to be some excitement when they get into the car,’’ explains Lynne Clifford, whose children range in age from 8 to 14. “We want everyone in a positive, happy mindset, so I make a trip bag for everyone, and it’s a surprise. They’re excited to get out of bed and see what’s in their bag. It’s like Christmas morning.’’

The older children get journals, books, teen magazines, Webkinz, and maybe a new Nintendo DS game. The younger ones find crayons, action figures, Polly Pockets, and Legos in their bags.

Clifford starts assembling the bags weeks in advance, but the effort pays off. “To spare 28 hours of misery, I think it’s worth investing a little time up front,’’ she says. “It’s a win-win.’’

It’s the season for holiday traveling, and with kids in tow, that can mean pleasure or pain. For advice on staying merry, we interview child-traveling pros this week.

Plan ahead

Gift bags require preparation, but they shouldn’t be the only item on your pretrip checklist, says Barbara Meltz, who wrote the Globe’s Child Caring column for 19 years, now reincarnated as a blog on Boston.com.

“The biggest problem for parents in the car is when kids start to bicker over things like who’s going to sit where - these are things best worked out ahead of time,’’ she says. “Have a chart. From 1 to 3 p.m., John gets the window seat. Have something more objective than just saying “It’s now time to switch,’’ particularly if there is a highly prized seat, or nobody wants to sit next to the dog or baby, or everyone wants to sit next to them.’’

If you’re going to watch DVDs, hold a family meeting before the trip and vote on what to watch. Or whether to play games in the car, listen to music, or a book on tape.

“I would try to do it in a democratic way. ‘The last time we went to South Carolina it didn’t go well, so what ideas do you have so it will be better than last time?’ ’’ Meltz says.

If democracy doesn’t work in your household - “If we let the kids vote, then the one girl always gets outvoted by the two boys,’’ says parent Amy Ritterbusch, whose family travels from Hopkinton to Indianapolis for Christmas - then let everyone pick one thing they want to watch or play.

The family meeting is also prime for deciding how much time you’re going to let your older kids use cellphones, MP3 players, or handheld video games.

“I wouldn’t just get into the car and say, ‘Now you’ve got to turn them off,’’’ Meltz says.

“Maybe they’re going to listen to their music for an hour or an hour and a half, then you’re going to take their equipment and put it up front. Do this ahead of time so they’re all signed on.’’

Even younger children need to be prepped before a big trip.

“Tell them it’s going to be longer than watching three ‘Thomas the Train’ videos. Something concrete they can understand,’’ Meltz says.

“Tell them ‘We’re going to stop and play tag or duck, duck, goose.’ Then they look forward to it.’’

Leave early

If there’s a golden rule of traveling with children, it’s this: The earlier you leave the better.

Christine Koh, a West Medford mother of two and creator of the blog bostonmamas.com, begins family trips to Long Island hours before dawn.

“We literally scoop them out of their bed or the crib. They fall right back asleep, so we burn off a lot of the ride that way,’’ she says. “My husband and I then swap off napping.’’

You might beat traffic by leaving early, but the real goal is to have a more relaxed trip, not necessarily a faster one, she says.

“If the drive is two hours, my husband and I plan on building in an extra hour. We take a break without worrying about the time . . . It’s a happier mind-set.’’

Keep moving

Rest stops are important on any trip, but not for resting. Have your kids do jumping jacks, sprints, or jump rope, anything to burn off some energy, Meltz says.

“Middle school kids might sort of scoff at the idea, but they’ll be glad you did it in some age-appropriate way,’’ she says. “Throw a softball or baseball around. Whatever. And I wouldn’t let winter stop me. Kids love to get out in the snow and throw snowballs.’’

If the weather’s awful, stop at a shopping mall or a restaurant with a playground, such as McDonald’s.

Snacking

You’re allowed to splurge on trips, but to prevent dehydration, pack plenty of fluids, apples, or other fruits high in water.

Eating, Koh reminds, can be an activity itself.

“My kids don’t eat that fast,’’ she says. “They just sit there and snack and chitchat. It just provides a really good distraction for a long time.’’

Bickering

When the back seat becomes a war zone, just stop the car, Meltz says.

“Pull over and say, ‘I can’t drive when you’re like this. We’ll have to sit and wait,’ ’’ she says. “Even if you’re just driving 10 minutes to soccer practice, do it. It’s shocking for a kid, because most of the time we make these threats and don’t make good on them.

“If you’re on a trip, sometimes the reason they’re being difficult in the first place is because they need’’ a physical outlet.

Toys old and new

The trip to Indianapolis takes 18 hours, so Ritterbusch lets each child pick out a new pair of pajamas for the ride.

“They don’t care so much about pajamas now that they are older, but at age 3 a pair of new Superman pajamas with a Velcro cape was a big thrill,’’ she says.

Koh saves money by searching her house for forgotten toys, or will swap toys with another parent before a trip.

“We do the what’s-old-is-new approach, whether it’s books we haven’t read in a while, or something like a jump rope which my daughter hasn’t played with in a long time,’’ she says.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, I forgot how much I loved that.’ ’’

DVDs, and now iPads, can be great distractions, but not everyone has them or believes in them.

“We tried borrowing a car DVD player; that was a disaster,’’ says Clifford. “They fought all the way to Nova Scotia, with the older kids not wanting to watch ‘The Wiggles’ for the third time.’’

Standard road trip games, books on tape, and storytelling are still great standbys, particularly if your child, like Koh’s, gets motion sickness while reading.

Adults in the car can make each other music playlists.

“And everybody loves Mad Libs,’’ Clifford says.

Lastly . . .

Clifford says the family never travels far without a trash bag, backup clothes for each child, and antibacterial wipes.

“If there is one item I would discourage against taking, it’s Play-Doh,’’ she says.

“We did once, and had dried Play-Doh in car crevices and under mats for years.’’

Happy trails.

Peter DeMarco lives in Somerville and can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’
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