Growing up, I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents. For most of the year, this was absolutely excellent. For Christmas, it was somewhat less so (for my parents. Not for me or my siblings). Wanting to celebrate with both sets of grandparents meant a huge Christmas Eve dinner in London (with requisite gifts and the time my little sister threw up after eating too much bread sauce), followed by a Christmas morning four-hour drive to Lancashire, in time to open presents and sit down to a second enormous meal (and the time my little sister cried because I 'borrowed' her My Little Pony). As small children the Christmas drive didn't bother me and my little sister at all.
We began by spending several happy minutes 'squishing against each other', before repeated cries of 'Mum! Mum! She's squishing me!' meant that we were firmly told to stop touching each other. It didn't take us long to realize that one can be intensely irritating without touching. 'Stop blowing on me!' my little sister would wail, five minutes after our initial scolding. 'Mum! Mum! She's staring at me all the time!' My parents, Christmas cheer severely dampened, began an annual discussion over the relative merits of exchanging our five-seater for a mini-van. 'With a partition fence in the back,' my dad said one year. 'I've seen those.' 'They're for dogs, darling,' my mother replied, although my little sister and I were pretty sure she was considering it.
Even relatively short car journeys can begin to feel endless when travelling with small bored people. Rather than hoping that 'the rocking motion will send them to sleep', as I overheard my dad say in 1997, when I was 11 years old, and certainly no longer being rocked to sleep by anyone, travelling pains can be ameliorated by keeping children entertained and happy for as long as possible.
Top ten tips for happy travelling
1. Make all journeys at night. Preferably, dress children in pajamas and tell them that everyone will be asleep. Imply that follow-up questions about 'who is driving the train' are unsporting.
2. Remember that things move in transport, so games that are brilliant at home (whilst reasonably stationary) can be a nightmare on a trip. This magnetic play centre is a clever solution to spending the entire journey picking up dropped toys. Equally, it is a fun and engaging way for your child to practice making words and spelling.
3. This magnetic pattern board is also great - although my little sister complained throughout our childhood that I 'ruined' games like this, by constantly telling her which piece went where.
4. More self-sacrificing parents will patiently let car journeys be filled with endless times-tables, and 'A children's introduction to French', but there are only so many times one can hear '7x7 is 49, oui?' without considering a frontal lobotomy. Having a secret delight for Disney songs (which is handily shared by children), this CD pack of Disney songs has saved many a long car journey.
5. Provide paper and a capped pen (nothing says calm and relaxed parenting than discovering the endless, incomprehensible pen marks on items stored in the same bag as said pen), and begin a competition for 'the most well-written and beautiful' thank-you letters. A kit-kat as a prize works well, not only because they are delicious, but also because they can be shared...possibly even with a parent.
6. Nothing is more likely to keep a child quiet and entertained than an iPad, but the educational value of angry birds can tend to pale after a while (as can the high-pitched sound pollution). Learn to read with Pip have created a series of educational phonics apps, a series of games that help your child learn to read.
7. I am a firm fan of old-timey travel games such as 'I spy' (one person sees an object, states its first letter and everyone else looks around them to guess said object) and 'Spot the cow!' (everyone yells out whenever they see a farmyard animal, it becoming quickly painfully clear that some people have a very hazy grasp on what constitutes a cow).
8. But I also place great value in some of our family-made travel games, such as the song game (where one person hums the opening line to a song, and everyone shouts out 'it's Happy Birthday!' because when children hum songs, they always sound like Happy Birthday) or the rap game (where one person says a sentence, and the next person tries to make their next sentence rhyme. (Although my little sister grudgingly points out that 'of course' I would, because as a child I always won them.)
9. My little sister and I spent many Christmas Day car journeys compiling lists. To this day, we can rattle off 20-strong lists of different types of fruit, or places we'd just love it if mum and dad took us on holiday. (My parents had an infuriating habit of pointing out that we were, in fact, at that very moment being taken on holiday, which was highly disruptive).
10. Sleeping lions. The original, and still the best. Promise a kit-kat as a prize, and if you're lucky everyone will fall asleep, leaving all that lovely chocolate for yourself.