‘Snacks, snacks and more snacks’: readers’ tips on driving with children

Six parents offer the best ways to entertain impatient young passengers on long car journeys during family holidays

Backseat temper tantrums have knocked the wheels off many a family holiday, and now a statistician has calculated the exact formula for predicting the chances, and timing, of children throwing a tantrum in the back of a car during a long journey.

Six Guardian readers share their best tips for dealing with impatient young passengers on longer car trips, with some advocating treats or silly games with upset children, while others found playing favourite songs on repeat or getting iPads out to be effective ways to entertain kids while on the road.

Michelle Lukins Segerstrom is not too keen on her son’s preferred car music.
Michelle Lukins Segerstrom is not too keen on her son’s preferred car music. Photograph: Michelle Lukins

‘My four-year-old demands Depeche Mode’

“Strategic handing out of snacks saving the big guns for the mega emergency tantrums. You always have to come loaded with snacks. What we’ve learned is you can’t give them snacks too early, that itself can cause tantrums. You have to wait until they are a bit irritated – save them, otherwise it’s a disaster. The big gun snack has to be something sweet.

“Planning journeys around naps. Our four-year-old son demands to listen to Depeche Mode (whom he calls ‘Fish Mode’) on repeat. We’re bored of it and try not to put it on too early in the journey. We sing to our one-year-old.” Michelle Lukins Segerstrom, 42, communication manager, London

‘Stopping often is key’

“Back in the early 80s, driving to south-west France with three children under 10 sitting in the back seat of our Renault 25, my wife devised a system of treats for each of the children that were delivered at – initially – half-hour intervals. Age-appropriate small things, puzzles, toys, a comic. No sweets. But the fact that we were stopping every couple of hours or so to eat and stretch our legs was probably more important than the treats. To let the kids sleep, we turned the car heater up and put a tape of soporific music on. This got us to our camp site in, if memory serves, less than eight hours. Paul Asher, 70, retired psychotherapist, Surrey

‘Buy a bag of chocolate frogs’

Kevin Hayes wonders whether the mere threat of destroyed chocolate frogs put his children off unruly behaviour in the backseat.
Kevin Hayes wonders whether the mere threat of destroyed chocolate frogs put his children off unruly behaviour in the backseat. Photograph: Kevin Hayes/Guardian Community

“The best trick I’ve heard of was a strategy an Australian friend of ours employed on car journeys of several hours with her three under-10 boys. This mother would buy a bag of chocolate frogs, and each time a child had a tantrum she’d unwrap one frog and chuck it out the window. The children were told they could have any remaining chocolate frogs at the end of the trip. I think it just teaches that there are immediate real-life consequences for bad behaviour.

“The way she told it, it was mostly successful, I think, though we never tested this with our four children, I wish we’d been this bold. Our chocolate-loving children were horrified when they heard about our friend’s technique, so perhaps the mere threat of using it was sufficient for them.

“We just tried to keep them occupied with books, toys and silly games. Once we bought them all Tamagotchis, and told the kids to keep them fed and well. This worked for a couple of hours and only, I suspect, because each child had the same toy.” Kevin Hayes, 55, Great Missenden

Alison Robinson wrapped her children’s treats when they were young to buy herself an hour of peace on the road.
Alison Robinson wrapped her children’s treats when they were young to buy herself an hour of peace on the road. Photograph: Alison Robinson/Guardian Community

‘We discovered portable DVD players’

“We used to always drive across Europe with our three children, to Spain, Austria and other places. In those days we were very excited to discover portable DVD players. Harry Potter films would get us a long way. However, one of the most successful things we did was to buy little gifts and wrap them up and distribute them at appropriate moments, roughly every two to three hours. This would then get us another hour of relative calm.

“The most popular presents were stickers and sticker books. Puzzle books and pens also went down well. As long as they were wrapped – we used old newspapers – they were more exciting. We would manage car journeys of about seven to eight hours in this way.” Alison Robinson, 57, teacher,Buckinghamshire

‘IPad each child’

“IPad each child, with Bluetooth headphones and loaded up with downloads they’ve chosen themselves plus a few games. Got three children age three and a half, five and a half and eight, and this kept them mainly occupied on the drive to the Netherlands this summer via the Channel tunnel. Snacks, snacks, and more snacks.” Sammy, 42, GP, Bromsgrove

Annabelle Williams,
Annabelle Williams used to meticulously plan a number of activities her children could do in the car on long journeys to France. Photograph: Annabelle Williams/Guardian Community

‘Give them their own steering wheels’

“Distraction is best so plan, plan, plan. I’m a mum of three, and I used to hand party bags with small toys that had not been played with or seen for a while to each child, for instance, two farm animals, toy cars, finger puppets, and perhaps a lollipop. I’d also give them each a large cardboard lid I made by cutting a cereal box in half that they could use as a tray, put toys on and also colour in, using their imagination. Drawing faces on fingers is a really great idea as well, and costs nothing. Singing songs together is fantastic when an actual tantrum starts – you cannot be cross when you’re singing. But the best thing we did was give them stick-on steering wheels. They all pretended they were driving, and loved it. And – there’s nothing wrong with bribery.” Annabelle Williams, charity manager, London


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