My family, we’ve shared a drive or two.
Ever since our daughters’ toddler years, family road trips have been a mainstay of our annual travel plans, with at least one every year for the last decade.
We started out small and easily manageable, going four hours to Pittsburgh, then eight to Detroit, slowly stretching our driving itinerary to reach Kansas City over the course of two days on the road. Years later, we spent a couple of weeks traipsing around the Pacific Northwest, from Seattle to the Redwoods in California, and in 2015, my family of four did the big one — we went cross-country.
This past summer, my college-age niece climbed on board, making us a fivesome. With a pair of teens and a precocious tween in the back two rows of a Kia Sedona minivan, we traveled the one-way width of America again, learning a lot about ourselves and each other in the process.
Here are seven lessons I learned going on a cross-country road trip with teen girls.
1. Much of the trip is up to them.
You will map a route to get you from points A to Z, but there is no planning for how your cross-country road trip will impact your teens, or what they will take from and do during it. Your teens are their own people now, so they will shape their own narrative of your family’s cross-country road trip. Resist at your own risk!
Instead of pre-planning your entire family’s vacation story, give teens the autonomy to make decisions that will shape how they experience the journey. If your teenager decides that the way in which they want to document the trip is not through traditional souvenirs from trinkets shops like they did as a younger child, but rather by finding cool used bookstores in every state, go ahead and carve out a space in your minivan for her to stash her mobile library!
Would I have preferred to not add 20-plus books to the Sedona we put 3,500 miles on this summer? Of course, magnets take up much less space! But I made space for her expanding book collection, literally and figuratively, and my teen loved me more for it.
2. Shed a tear for playtime.
The first time we spent weeks in a car together going coast to coast, we played with Playmobil People, made ziplines across the car with Wikki Stix, and created fake radio shows, with my oldest daughter inventing the absurd international adventurer Bobby Flagpole as host. We also listened to the same music and laughed at the same jokes — it was a shared experience from PA to CA. The 2017 version was less playful, with one teen reading non-stop, the other, my 19-year-old niece, often using earbuds to play her own music and the tween with her nose in the iPad far too often. This left my wife to sleep in the passenger seat while I begrudgingly slipped my own earbuds in to play one soccer podcast after the next for hours on end, all the while I shed a little tear for the playtime of youth.
3. Be ready to make room for a friend.
Make room for a friend… and a completely different dynamic within the car. Your teen has close friends now — or a teenager cousin! That’s awesome for your kid, but it will be different for your family dynamic. Not only is their plus one an extra mouth to feed every day and body to find a bed for every night, but the friend is also another mood and personality to manage/juggle for the long, sometimes boring (sorry, Kansas and North Dakota) parts of a cross-country road trip.
4. Sometimes, you have to get out of their way.
Your limitations, both physical and mental, cannot stand in the way of how your teens might want to experience a new place. My teens and tween wanted to make their own memories of Wyoming by whitewater rafting on the Snake River in Jackson Hole. Having a bad back that was just beginning to feel better, there was no way I was taking part in the action on the rapids. But there was also no way I was going to let my physical condition stand in the way of them having that experience. I booked the trip on my phone, dropped them off, and found a laundromat to catch up on the wash and even more soccer podcasts for the next few hours. My back was still feeling good and they had a blast on the water!
5. Their music isn’t always your music… and that’s OK.
As a passionate music snob, I never wanted there to be any chasm between ‘my’ music and ‘their’ music, and for much of the past 13-plus years, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the music we love as a family. On this summer’s cross-country road trip with teens, I loosened my grip on the Bluetooth, letting them take control and hear their favorite music through the Sedona’s killer Harman/Kardon system instead of their earbuds. Of course, kid, we can listen to “Piano Man” again… and again. And again. Sing us a song, Billy Joel! Oh, the Hamilton cast recording next? Sure, it’s not like we already drove the width of North Dakota singing along to that!
6. Boy talk is inevitable — but so is a bonding experience.
His name was Wyatt and he was our tour guide for the lake crossing and hike in Glacier National Park. He was super cute, with enviable hair and a wide, earnest smile. My 19-year-old niece couldn’t take her eyes off of him. This was the first time I heard conversation surrounding boys in the company of my own daughters. As a dad who isn’t afraid of human nature, I was kind of giddy to be participating in this talk and felt it was a way I could continue to connect with my daughters (and also be a cool dad). Also, I liked Wyatt too – after all, he’s from Michigan, a Red Wings fan, and is going to school to become a teacher — the kid was alright in my book!
7. Anticipate the social media battle.
If you have an artistic kid with an Instagram account of their own, and also fancy yourself a bit of a photographer (one who might be followed on the social media platform by a lot of her friends), expect a battle royale as you and your teen fight over the best photo and most crisp edit. This was a joyous competition for my teen and I, with me agreeing to not share some photos of her, so that she could do so first, and me using some of hers (with credit, of course) because she has a fantastic eye for framing a shot, capturing light, and putting her own unique spin on classic road trip photos. In many ways, she’s already better at the photo game than I am, which makes me impossibly happy… even if she does get to post to Instagram before I do!
Contrary to how many people think about kids and technology, my teen and tween are also better than me at putting the phone down to be present in the moment.