"How much longer until we get there?" Matt asked for at least the sixth time in the last half-hour.
He sighed heavily when I told him we had nearly two more hours to go. His backpack was bulging with things he'd chosen to bring along. But that didn't help. Neither did an entire can of his favorite drink. He was tired of sitting still.
I couldn't blame him. I was restless, too. We were crammed like sardines on the crowded cross-country flight, heading to the relatives for the holidays. On the other side of me, 2-year-old Melanie also was getting fidgety. The floor under her seat was littered with crayons, books and other discarded toys from her backpack. The guy sitting in front of her kept complaining she was kicking his seat. I apologized profusely.
A crowded plane is no fun for active kids -- or their parents. But like it or not, many of us can't avoid cramming our kids into too-small places, whether a plane, a car or around a crowded dining room table.
It's hard even in the best of times to keep kids amused for hours in enclosed places. But it doesn't have to be miserable. Remember: The more relaxed you are, the better the kids will behave. If you're stressed and grumpy, that's the way they'll act, too.
"Focus on the fun part of getting there as opposed to thinking the fun will start when you arrive," suggests Dr. Don Wertlieb, chairman of Tufts University's child study department who travels frequently with his three kids.
It works, too. Lately, when we're facing a long trip, I take a we're-all-in-this-together approach that makes the kids feel like they're heading off on some adventure, not an interminable drive or flight they must passively endure. By the end of a recent grueling car trip through northern Arizona, in fact, Matt was proudly telling everyone how he and I had survived "Mom's Marathon Drive."
The same idea would work if you know you're in for a dull afternoon visiting a relative. Dr. Wertlieb suggests spurring the kids' cooperation ahead of time by promising something fun afterward -- ice cream sundaes, a movie they want to see. That way you're rewarding positive behavior, he explains, rather than "getting stuck punishing."
Remember that wherever you're going or how you're getting there, the more the kids are involved in the planning, the happier everyone will be on the way. Pick a carry-along snack. And ask the kids to choose what games they want to have on hand during the flight (opt for a variety and don't forget a deck of cards).
Choose a favorite story or song tape to take along. For younger kids, consider the Albuquerque-based Green Chile Jam Band's "Magic Bike" tape of original songs, including one about Green Chile Jam -- the best food in the world ($9.98). It won the American Library Association award as a Notable Children's Recording for 1993.
I owe author Judy Blume a personal debt of gratitude for making hundreds of miles speed by for my family. Nine-year-old Matt and 7-year-old Reggie never tire of listening to Ms. Blume read her books "Superfudge" and "Fudge-A-Mania," which recount the adventures of Peter Hatcher, his aggravating younger brother, Fudge, and baby sister Tootsie (Listening Library, $15.98).
Along with the audio tapes, tuck a few videos in the suitcase to entertain the kids once you get where you're going. Your hosts might not have a supply of tapes your kids like, but they'll probably have a VCR.
Consider having a little gift or two to hand out along the way. There's plenty of toys-that-travel to choose from: from travel versions of such classics as Parker Brothers new Boggle Junior Travel, which helps kids match letters to pictures ($6.99), to Mattel Toys' Travel UNO, complete with carrying case (about $7), to Workman's "Kids Best Dog Book" ($12.95), which covers the basics of caring for dogs and comes complete with a pocket-sized field guide of the 70 most common breeds.
Savvy parents I know take a bag of toys along wherever they're going -- insurance that the kids will have something they like on hand. My daughter Reggie never leaves home without her own personal traveling art kit, complete with glittery crayons, fluorescent markets and stickers.
I save my secret weapon for those times when all else fails: I tell old family stories. The more embarrassing, the better.
Happy New Year.