Back in the 1980s, my parents employed some unconventional ways to keep me and my brother quiet on long car rides. I remember a game we used to play – it didn't have a name, but "Spot the Road Kill" would have been apt.
Before we set out, dad would assign a value for different carcasses: 25 cents for a common black squirrel, double the price for something rarer, such as a porcupine. By the time we reached our destination, we'd have enough spare change to buy some candy at the general store. If it was a particularly gory trip, we might have money for a comic book, too.
Those were the days before car seats, when we could sit in the back hatch of our Pinto station wagon and wave at drivers behind us. If we argued too much, dad would pull over, and mom would throw open the door and scream, "Do you want to walk home?" Back then, if parents wanted to stay sane on long trips, they had to be creative, and menacing.
How things have changed. Parents now let high-tech devices entertain the little ones and kids who have grown up with fancy gadgets are no longer interested in playing the licence-plate game. For better or worse, technology has changed road trips, replacing family time with screen time.
Candee McCarthy, mom to eight- and 10-year-old boys in Cape Breton Island, N.S., says she tried to make her family's annual summer road trips quality time. She even created her own car bingo game when they made the 17-hour drive to Toronto two summers ago.
"Those activities lasted about five seconds," McCarthy grudgingly admits. "Colouring books just don't cut it when you have the kind of video games the kids have now on their Nintendo DS."
Why fight progress, McCarthy asks? Technology makes long drives easier and more pleasant than her own childhood trips. "Our parents would be fighting and yelling all the time," she says, recalling a 1984 trek to Prince Edward Island, in which she fought with her siblings the whole time and the family got lost.
McCarthy, on the other hand, lets the GPS lead the way. The kids have individual screens and headphones for watching movies on the built-in DVD player, or they can watch something separately through their iPods. She packs her own iPad, too.
"I give them healthy organic snacks to alleviate my guilt for letting them rot their brains," she jokes.
Calgary mom Alina Martin agrees games only work for so long with her six-year-old daughter.
"The iPad is your best friend. It can really keep your kids occupied in the car," says Martin, adding she's not worried about her daughter having too much screen time on trips, as long as it keeps everyone calm and safe.
"I'll take screen time over screaming time in the car."
Kathy Lynn, a parenting author in Vancouver, says it's fine to give kids extra screen time, but all activities must have limits. Children aren't meant to sit still for hours.
Back in 1973, Lynn took her kids, ages one and two at the time, on a five-week road trip to Toronto. It wasn't always a smooth ride, and there were no gadgets to distract them.
"If things were falling apart, we pulled over and gave them exercise. It's really an understated solution to a lot of kids' problems."
Of course, technology doesn't have to replace creativity. Sometimes it can enhance it, Lynn says. While parents are driving, kids can use a mobile device to look up activities and restaurants in the next town.
Calgary dad Amen Samra lets his son use the GPS to track their progress on trips.
Krista Sigurdson of Toronto prints out mazes, crosswords and other games she finds on Pinterest.com for her two children, and gives each a clipboard to write on.
Although my parents were certainly creative with their car game, I don't have the heart to tell my own kids to count road kill – "There's nothing wrong with that raccoon, it's just napping." I sometimes turn to technology to keep them entertained, downloading audio books to play over the car speakers. Although it keeps the kids quiet, it's something we can do together – and isn't that still the point of family road trips?
Dianne Nice is the Globe's business community editor.
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