By Laura Simon

Three years ago, we bought tablets for my boys, then ages 4 and 5. They were cheap tablets, and we rationalized that they would be helpful on long car trips. Since we live seven hours from family, we make plenty of those.

In theory, it worked. But it also got a little ugly. There was fighting of one tablet ran out of charge before the other one. There were breakdowns when the tablets didn’t work right. Then my youngest got her own tablet and quickly demonstrated her fondness for playing a game with a blender that sounds like a dentist’s drill…over and over…for hours. The tablets that were supposed to give us peace in the car were increasingly driving us to insanity.

We made two long trips in one week’s time this month: one to Cincinnati for a funeral, and another to Charleston for work. When we came home from Cincinnati, I tossed the tablets in a pile and didn’t even bother to charge them. The time came to leave for Charleston, and none of the tablets had the tiniest bar of charge. So I left them at home. It certainly wasn’t part of my larger parenting plan, but I’m so glad I did it.

We weren’t out of Winston before the panic set in. Where were the tablets? Did mom….forget them?

“Nope, guys. I didn’t forget them. I just didn’t bring them. Sorry.” There were some complaints, and then something (almost) magical happened. My kids looked out the windows. They started reading everything in sight. Even my brand-new, reluctant reader was sounding out street signs and advertisements. Boredom is amazing, folks.

They learned to scout the blue signs before each exit in hopes that the golden arches would show up. They can tell you the highways we took to Charleston and the ones we took on the way back. They saw football stadiums, Carowinds, and when we rolled into the outskirts of Charleston, my youngest yelled, “MOMMMY, there’s BEACH TREES over there!” Of course, it came out more like, “Wook, dere’s Beets Twees,” but I knew what she meant. And yes, we have speech therapy plans in the works, bless her heart.

Had the tablets been on, no one but me would have noticed the trees.

When we went over the big suspension bridge that connects Charleston to the closest beaches, two children screamed and squealed and acted like it was the best roller coaster ever. The other one asked if there was a way to make him not know he was going over the bridge. I was wondering the same thing, but I was driving and apparently you have to be conscious to do that.

Like the worst backseat drivers ever, they suggested that I keep my hands at the 10 and 2 positions on the steering wheel, told me if I was following the GPS instructions correctly, learned many new words (“Spartanburg” apparently just rolls off the tongue), and even identified their favorite billboards (the Lego realtor stands out).

Yes, there was some whining. Yes, the first “Are we there yet?” happened before we even left Winston. Yes, the trip took longer than it should have because people got hungry – and were aware they were hungry – on account of not having their faces buried in technology.

But contrast the reading, the seeing, the imagining of this trip with our last road trip…this time through Charleston, West Virginia.

“Hey kids, look at the beautiful gold dome on the capital building!”


“Hey kids, it’s snowing!”


“Hey kids, it’s snowing really hard and mommy is stressed. Can you please turn down the volume?


I’m not sure any of the kids can tell you a single thing about that seven-hour trip, except for the part where the battery on the tablet gave out. And when we got where we were going, all their time and energy went to charging the tablet and begging to have it again. On the second trip, no one mentioned the tablets again…because they just weren’t there. Everyone was calmer, for the most part. We were all more engaged.

I’m not saying we’ll never use the tablets on car trips ever again, but I’m going to be a lot less likely to pull them out. After all, the alphabet game is just a lot more fun.

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