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At the crossroads

When Sidney and Doris Peterson drove from Spokane to Disneyland for its grand opening in the summer of 1955, their three kids entertained themselves in the back seat of the family’s Oldsmobile 88. “They had coloring books,” said Doris. “And didn’t they have those coonskin caps?” added Sidney. Times have changed.

Today’s children often face the long-distance family road trip armed with a high-tech array of alphabet-soup movie players, music devices, electronic games, cell phones and portable computers. The rear of some family rigs resembles a rolling rec center.

Mrs. Peterson, now a great-grandmother, doesn’t approve.

“Kids don’t look outside the car,” she said. “It’s just like they’re at home. It isn’t an adventure.”

Yvette Buckley, a Spokane mother of three, put it another way: “No longer are children made to suffer through countless miles of endless natural beauty.”

Which raises a question.

Have DVDs, iPods, et cetera fundamentally changed that American classic, the family car trip?

Maybe, said Matthew Bumpus, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University.

The more that people are plugged into techno distractions, the less conversation there’s apt to be. And the less talk, the less the chance of serendipitous family bonding.

But if parents are alert and seize the openings, they can still connect with the kids during breaks between movies or songfests, he said. “Parenting in a lot of cases is taking advantage of moments.”

Bumpus and his wife have boys who are 10, 8 and 3. They made a point of getting a family vehicle without any kind of DVD player or such.

It was a decision partly inspired by nostalgia. But he acknowledges that in savoring golden memories, the reality of road trips sometimes gets shunted aside.

Life in the back seat with his sister in the family’s 1972 station wagon could be frustrating, in a “Brady Bunch” sort of way. “To a large degree, any communication we had was yelling at each other,” he said. “You know, she was on my side, I was on her side.”

The classic crime.

(No need for a show of hands. The aging veterans of those back-seat battles are legion.)

Now certainly there are people who remember harmonious vacation journeys to national parks, battlefields, ocean beaches and grandmother’s house.

And lots of adults have fond memories of playing Slug Bug, counting telephone poles and watching America pass by outside the window.

Forty-year-old Spokane freelance writer Cindy Hval even remembers her family entertaining itself by singing, for instance.

But for many other grown-ups, recalling sweat-soaked family car trips summons images of astounding feats of bladder control, mom and dad going 15 rounds in the front seat, sliding around sans seat belts, dad trying to impose law and order by flailing about with his right arm, the smell of stale burgers permeating your pores, carsick siblings spewing milkshakes and choruses of the evergreen summer anthem, “Are We There Yet?”

Joe Jovanovich, the 54-year-old manager of a Spokane Valley mailing service, remembers his dad zooming across Montana at terrifying speeds while deflecting urgent pleas about bathroom breaks with his halfhearted mantra, “In a while.”

Cara Cahoon Byrnes, an active volunteer in Spokane, remembers doing time in the ‘70s in the back of her parents’ AMC Javelin. “If I ever made the mistake of reaching for something I’d dropped on the floor, my brother would push me down head first and sit on my backside so I couldn’t move,” she said.

Is this a tradition whose disappearance we should lament?

Depends on how you look at it.

Perhaps no one would miss the jabbering sibling torment and old-school “Hold it” marathons. But with the widespread demise of the family dinner time and schedules that have everyone going in different directions, maybe togetherness shouldn’t be wasted.

“Any time we have families together in a small space, there are a lot of opportunities,” said Harriet Shaklee, a University of Idaho family development specialist. “Opportunities for positive and opportunities for negative.”

She said there’s nothing inherently wrong with kids watching a DVD in the back of the car. Nor is there anything automatically bad about children listening to music on headphones.

But if the kids go the whole trip without ever checking out the countryside or engaging their parents in conversation, a chance to connect with one another has been lost, she said.

Shaklee recommends holding a family meeting before the trip to establish time-limit rules for DVD watching, headphone wearing, et cetera.

“Sometimes parents need to help kids see the excitement of what’s out the car window,” she said. “Kansas is not bad DVD country, but to go through the Rocky Mountains with a DVD on doesn’t make sense to me.”

Just don’t expect immediate group hugs or all tension and resentments to magically get left by the side of the road.

“Try to be realistic about your expectations,” said WSU’s Bumpus.

For some families, that means three words: Survive the drive.

North Siders Holly Sims and her husband have continually upgraded the in-car electronic entertainment options for their kids, now ages 7 and 4.

“I can’t imagine any other way,” she said. “To us, it’s totally worth the money, as it saves our sanity.”

Apparently a lot of parents agree.

Car shopping couples – especially those scoping out minivans – often evaluate vehicles at least partly on the basis of their built-in youth-mesmerizing capabilities, said Steve Putnam, an assistant sales manager at Spokane Chrysler. “It’s not the old days of magnetic checkers anymore.”

Kids still argue and fight. And sometimes they fight about, say, which DVD to watch.

But countless parents still swear by the 2005 lineup of distractions.

Of course, it’s not just children who enjoy modern toys on long car trips.

“The comedy channels on satellite radio keep my husband entertained for hours,” said Jana Augenstine of Deer Park.

Still, the rise of new habits means old practices fade away. And it could be argued that some of those old habits had merit.

Spokane teacher Betsy Weigle, mother of boys who are 15 and 12, has seen the techno revolution overthrow a cherished aspect of her own childhood car trips – reading.

“Distances were marked by how many chapters one read,” she said.

Moreover, comic books, baseball cards and lots of other treasures used to be part of the picture.

Not everyone gets wistful about the old days, though.

Kathy Altieri, who works for a Spokane bank, is one baby boomer who doesn’t begrudge today’s kids their back-seat arcades. Her own memories of family road trips feature carsickness and both her parents smoking in the car.

“I’m rather jealous they didn’t have these things when I was a child or when my own children were small,” she said. “Anything to keep the peace and quiet during a long car trip is welcome in my book.”

For many kids today, the switched-on/tuned-in car trip is all they know.

When 10-year-old Brianna DuFour’s family hits the road, she and her little sister watch movies in the back seat. “Lilo & Stitch” and “The Iron Giant” are a couple of favorites.

The Cheney fourth-grader can’t imagine enduring long-distance car travel any other way.

“It’d be kind of crazy,” Brianna said. “I’d have a hard time doing that.”


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