Sometimes I think that despite having the best intentions, we do too much for our kids. I know I do. Naturally, we want to see them succeed in school, athletics, music, or whatever else our children spend their time doing. We want them to grow up better than we did, and to see them become productive citizens. However, not only do we shop, cook, and clean for them, plan their activities, and taxi them around town, we also act as their alarm clocks, monitor their homework, remind them about due dates and practice schedules, organize their backpacks, double-check that they have their gym-shoes, instruments, lunches and school projects for the day, and even arrange their play-dates. As a teacher I know that parental involvement is the number one indicator of student academic success, but I also know that there are a lot of young adults that struggle when it comes to managing their own responsibilities and successfully working towards a goal. Although there is a lot of good that comes from parental involvement, we also have to give them the opportunity to be independent and self-reliant. How do we do this? Many, many ways, one of which is a “good, old-fashioned, family” road trip.
The trips described in this blog won’t actually be successful if all the work that needs to get done is dependent upon one person. It’s like the perfect storm of chores. When you are setting up a new campsite every few days, eating virtually every meal out of a cooler or over a campfire, and living out of your car for a month at a time , everyone has to be responsible not only for themselves, but also for assigned chores within the family. If the kids don’t work together and take responsibility for their own selves, there are going to be a lot of serious mommy meltdowns. After being in the car for hours at a time, sometimes fighting the stress of traffic or trying to navigate your way to a new destination, and then finally arriving at a site with a list of chores to get done before the fun begins, you have to have a system in place to make it happen smoothly and calmly. That system is everyone knowing their jobs for the family, and being responsible enough to get them done without constant reminders, nagging, shouting, and crying.
Below is a list of ways that I expect the kids to be self-reliant on our family road trips:
- The kids are responsible for their own clothes bag. I give the kids a packing list and they lay out everything that is on the list in piles on the floor. After I quickly check over it and make sure the clothes are appropriate, they pack their bag. Then for the rest of their trip, they are responsible for their own clothes and re-packing the bag at each stop. It is no longer my responsibility.
- The kids are responsible for their own activity bag. I allow each child to pack one back-pack with books, toys, coloring, or other activities that they want for the car rides and down time. I check each backpack before we leave to make sure it is all road-trip appropriate, as I don’t allow electronic games, crayons that could melt, Legos, or any games with small pieces. For the rest of the trip, they have to keep track of all their own stuff, keep it picked up, and shuttle it from car to tent and back again on their own.
- The kids have to keep the car clean. Everyone is responsible for their own space and their own activity bag. This means keeping track of their own stuff, picking up any trash in their area, and not invading the space of others.
- The kids have to help set-up camp. We have setting up camp down to a science, and can generally get the whole thing done in less than 30 minutes. Upon arrival, two or three of us lay out the tarp and set up the tent. The other two clean the trash out the car, pick up anything that stills needs to be put away from the drive, and start pulling out camp chairs and coolers from the car. After the tent is up, Aubrey usually goes inside to organize sleeping spaces, while the twins run back and forth between the car and the tent carrying the mats, bedrolls, sleeping bags, and pillows that I pull out of the Yakima. Once everything is inside the tent, the kids finish organizing it and I have time to re-organize any driving directions I had out and start reviewing the information I need for our new location.
- The kids have to help with meals. They can collect firewood, prepare vegetables, and pull supplies out the cooler and boxes. After eating they have to clean their own dishes and utensils, and help put away other supplies.
- The kids carry what they need for all hikes and outings. Each kid has their own Camelback that is large enough to carry enough water for them on long hikes and has zippered storage compartments. In the storage compartments I’ve put a whistle, small first aid package, sunscreen, and chapstick. They can also carry their own snacks if desired, but I usually carry any picnic snacks in my camelback.
- The kids have to help break-down camp. Packing up the campsite will take longer than setting it up. We can usually have it done in 45 minutes if everyone helps. Each kid packs his/her clothing bag, rolls up the yoga mat and sleeping bag, and sets everything they used on the picnic table, ready to be loaded into the car. Once everything is out of the tent, Aubrey (or Andy) and I take it down and pack it up. During this time, the kids are folding up the camp chairs, picking up trash, and putting any other gear or toys away. The kids bring me all the stuff that goes into the Yakima while I pack it away. Then they haul in the coolers, food box, and pack the trunk.
It sounds like a lot written out like this, but once you establish expectations with the kids, and everyone sees each other working hard and doing their chores, they will settle in, work together, and get it done quite quickly. They might even have some fun. Getting to a new campsite is always exciting for us and we are all usually in a good mood. The kids are finally freed from the car and I let them run around for a few minutes to explore and burn off a little energy before we set up camp. It amazes me that the kids can find ways to make the chores fun too. For example, they actually fight for the job of setting up the tent so they can try out silly sleeping arrangements and change who is sleeping next to whom.
Ultimately, through all of the work and the shared responsibilities, the kids naturally feel more involved in the success of the family, and more responsible for themselves. They learn to trust and depend on themselves, and that’s a lesson that can’t be learned through any other method than experience. When you finally make it to that elusive hotel night, and you can take a long, hot shower, enjoy a soft bed and heavy comforters, a hot meal that you don’t have to cook and clean up after, their appreciation for the simple pleasures of home suddenly skyrockets. The experiences of these long trips teach them self-reliance, but the hard work also teaches them to be really grateful for all the conveniences of home, and that lesson is priceless.