In 2017, my husband and I took our four oldest grandchildren on a 2,750-mile road trip that we completed in eight days. The oldest child was 9 and the youngest was not quite 5 and we spent 40 hours together in the car. You read that right. 40 hours! 

I’ll never forget my husband’s comment to me before we left. “Honey,” he said, “I hope this trip goes well, but not so well that you ever want to do it again!” What a classic comment!

He did get his wish for although the the trip was a great success over all, we all agreed 40 hours in the car over an eight-day period was perhaps just a little too much.

People will often ask me how on earth we kept the kids entertained and ourselves sane during the trip. First of all, I did a huge amount of prep work and compiled a color-coded basket of activities for each child. There are actually quite a few activities that work well for kids those ages when traveling in a car. They had their own colored pencils, drawing paper and coloring books, library books, puzzles, stickers, fidget toys – and I can’t remember what all else. We did have a DVD player in the car but I am proud to say that they only watched two movies during the entire trip and that was on the way back home, when everyone was pretty well zonked.

But the most magical item in each of their baskets was their own color-coded set of 12 popsicle sticks. These cost me $1.00 and the plastic cases to contain them cost me another $4.00. But boy, was that $5.00 investment worth it!

I explained to the kids that they would each start the trip with a dozen popsicle sticks and had to have at least one left at the end of the trip to redeem a special gift I had for them. The small gifts were wrapped and on display during the trip. They could “spend” their popsicle sticks by asking “Are we there yet?” or “How much longer?” They would also lose a popsicle stick for fighting or squabbling with their traveling companions, whining, and not listening to grandparents. While visiting my sister-in-law in Georgia, we also had to add opening the one bedroom door and letting the cat out, because my husband is allergic to cats. (This is the only time my oldest granddaughter lost a popsicle stick.)

So how did it work? Every child had at least one popsicle stick left and the two oldest had almost all of theirs left. The youngest only had one left and, if we’re honest, that was pretty much by grace. But hey, the child was under five and just spent 40 hours in a car with a total of six people! I think she did very well overall.

Although all the planning paid off, I attribute the lion’s share of the success to the popsicle sticks. The tantalizing thought of that mysterious wrapped gift was such a “carrot” that no stick was needed on the trip – well, other than the popsicle stick.

That was almost seven years ago but it worked so well, we have used it a number of other times with equal success. In July of 2023, I took a 4-year-old and 6-year-old grandchild on a 1,000-mile road trip along Rt. 66 that we completed in just over two days. Once again, I used the popsicle method.

My four-year-old grandson lost a popsicle stick before we’d barely traveled ten miles. What was his infraction?  Spitting on his older sister, seated next to him in the back seat! But his eyes grew so wide with horror when I explained that he had to give me one of his popsicle sticks – he never lost another one on the whole trip! And his six-year-old sister never lost a single one. Sometimes I had to raise an eyebrow and ask if perhaps a “popsicle stick situation” was starting to brew? That invariably nipped it right in the bud. They both redeemed their little prizes at the end of the trip, a very small price to pay for a pleasant trip with plenty of cooperation!