06/09/2013 09:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Do You Govern Your Family Road Trip?

Five hours into the drive from Atlanta to Washington, our kids tried to stage a coup.

It happened at the worst possible moment in our trip, during a pit stop at a rest area on Interstate 85 in a remote part of North Carolina. We were exhausted and we hadn't eaten since grabbing a paper bag full of pastries at Alon"s Bakery and two oversize Americanos at Starbucks. Ah, road food!

The children were serious this time: Aren, our 11-year-old son, insisted on buying a new game on iTunes. Erysse, 6, our youngest child and only daughter, required another coloring book and fresh crayons. Iden, 8, our middle child wanted his own YouTube channel so he could start a live podcast. We shudder to think of what he'd broadcast.


If we didn't meet their demands, they refused to continue the journey.

Although we don't negotiate with the little terrorists as a matter of policy, we are known to bribe them with cupcakes from time to time. Fortunately we still had a stash, including a few really good ones made with berries and a delicate layer of sugar sprinkled on top. And after our young revolutionaries returned to the vehicle, it got us to thinking about the politics of road trips.

Actually, what better time to talk about road trip governance than when we're headed up to the nation's capital?

Not quite a democracy

We like to think of our family as a democracy. For example, when we try to decide where to eat dinner, and the adults vote to go to the local seafood restaurant (that's two votes) and the kids vote for Subway (um, three votes) can you guess where we end up? We're all eating six-inch subs, thanks a lot. But those "majority rules" votes are few and far between, as the kids pointed out.

When the needle's on "E," for instance, you need to pull over for gas. The back seat can't veto this. And no matter how the kids vote, they don't get to drive. Ever.


Defending the republic

Once we explained that in a democracy everyone gets a vote, our kids knew our car was anything but democratic. We're probably more of a republic.

True, our state designates parents as the de facto family representatives, whether they want it or not. The peanut gallery in the back seat doesn't always concur with that designation, but who cares? They don't get a vote!

This reduces any arguments to the legislative bodies in the front seat. It's Mom vs. Dad. And let's just say a bipartisan solution isn't always readily available. Fortunately, Dad almost always defers to Mom, referring to me as "the boss." Now we're getting somewhere!

OK, sometimes, it's a dictatorship

We get it. The children probably see our family as a monarchy, or maybe even a dictatorship. Mom and Dad answer many requests with a reflexive "no." And there are many requests. These include:

"Can I get a puppy?" (No, we already have three cats.)

"Let's get a big slushie?" (No, too much sugar.)

"I want a baby sister." (No, no, no.)

Call us benevolent dictators, maybe? We'll let history be the judge.

But seriously, sitting in a car for nine hours at a time gives everyone in the family a chance to think about power and how power is wielded and shared and sometimes usurped on a small scale. When you give it labels and then apply it to your kids' academic lessons, it brings government to life in an unexpected way.