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Guilt trip or not, TV brings smoother ride

We debated it off and on for weeks. Finally we gave in, but we still felt guilty. We bought a TV with built-in VCR to plug into the cigarette lighter of our car. We were taking a nine-hour drive to the South Carolina coast with a 3-year-old and 19-month-old and wanted to make it as easy on them _ and therefore us _ as possible.

A couple of friends of mine had sworn by them. When children have movies to watch instead of endless blue highway, they fight less, complain less, cry less, ask to stop less and even enjoy the car ride. Still, when I first mentioned the idea to my husband, he balked.

"Long family trips are a rite of passage," he said. "That's just pathetic if we can't make a road trip without leaving the TV at home."

I saw his point. I can remember playing car games with my sister in the back seat of our Ford Galaxy. Finding letters of the alphabet on billboards and license plates. Competing to see who could count the most cows on her side of the car. When you passed a cemetery, you lost all your cows and had to start over.

And who doesn't remember perhaps the most famous road trip of our generation _ the Brady family trip to the Grand Canyon in that trusty brown station wagon? We watched them cross the many miles singing show tunes and camp songs. Would it have been nearly as thrilling to watch the nine of them (Alice went, too) sitting silently glued to a Disney video?

But our children are too young to play car games, read or work in activity books with mazes and crossword puzzles. At home, there are a million things they can do other than watch TV. When you're 3 and you're strapped in a car seat for nine hours, your options are limited.

Eventually I convinced my husband, if ever there is a good time to just sit and watch TV, it's on a long road trip. Our television at home was on its last leg so we bought a new one with the VCR built in and an adapter that allowed us to plug it into the car.

I was expecting to get a verbal lashing from child-rearing experts but actually found one who has taken kids on a road trip or two himself.

"I don't think it is inherently bad to watch television in the car," said Dr. Michael Rich, a Boston pediatrician who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics committee that recently recommended children under 2 years old not watch television. "As long as one keeps some sort of general values in order, and you consider your options may be the TV or having the kids tear each other's hair out . . . or say: "I have to pee' five times an hour."

Reading and travel games would be other options, he said. But as long as your child doesn't expect six hours of television every day and if parents are interacting with their kids while they watch and ride, it's not such a terrible thing, Rich assured me.

"You should use media in any setting thoughtfully and not in a just-shut-them-up-and-let-them-veg-out approach," he said.

Other parents who caved like me say an easy road trip is worth the guilt trip.

"It is a cop-out and I felt bad, but I got over it," said Julie Volpe, a St. Petersburg mother of two boys 5 and 3.

"We got it when we were going to Hilton Head and it made the seven hours go like two hours," she said. "On the way back, we got caught by Hurricane Floyd (evacuation traffic jams) and the drive took 16 hours. We watched so much TV, it finally (overheated and) just wouldn't work anymore."

She agreed a television totally changes the dynamics of the old-fashioned family road trip, but other things have changed as well.

"When we were 5 and 3, we didn't take road trips. We didn't go anywhere," she pointed out. And when our families took us somewhere when we were older, we could read and play all those games. And we weren't locked into car seats or even seat belts most of the time.

"There's not very much else they can do from their car seat that keeps them happy for too long," said Amy Freedman, mother of 2{-year-old Megan. "She's at the age where she thinks about the potty every 25 seconds, so if she's not distracted, I'm stopping every five minutes to go to the bathroom."

Freedman plugs the VCR into her car for 12-hour drives to the North Carolina mountains and trips to Atlanta and Miami. If it's just to Orlando or Gainesville, they go without.

"As soon as we pull off the interstate we turn it off," she told me. "I tell Megan when we're in the city, the TV goes off."

Judy Anderson, mother of three girls ages 3 months to 5 years, has given in to using the VCR around town as well. It's a built-in feature of their Dodge Silhouette, so the screen hangs from the ceiling and turning on a movie is as easy as rolling down the window.

"We use it a lot more than just for road trips, unfortunately," Anderson said. "I feel guilty, but I've got three kids, and if my girls are in the back they are not going to fight or pick on each other if a movie is on. It's like a back-seat babysitter."

There are also times when Anderson has to park in the parking lot and nurse the baby before heading into the grocery store. She turns on a movie for her older daughters to watch while they wait.

"It helps me a lot," she said. "It helps me keep my sanity."

My husband was hesitant at first but became obsessed with getting the movies going when the adapter wouldn't work on our recent trip. The TV sat on a cooler just inches in front of our daughters. The older one kept asking why we brought it if we couldn't watch it. She did have a point.

We passed a Radio Shack in Starke around 8:30 a.m, but it didn't open until 9 a.m. We agreed we weren't waiting around. At 9:30 a.m. we found one in Jacksonville just off the interstate, but it didn't open until 10 a.m.

As we sadly pulled away, I spotted a guy with a tie walking to the door of the store. He was either an employee or a robber. Either way, I was determined to ask him to get us a better adapter. He was the manager and grudgingly let us in 30 minutes early to sell us an adapter. So after a 10-minute electronics stop we were back on the road and The Lion King was rolling.

When the children are older, it's a good time to force them to watch some of those long classics, Rich suggested.

"It is a logical time to watch Gone With the Wind. When else do you have that much time?" he said. "In our quickly moving lives, it's not often you have that much time to sit down and really absorb something."

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or call (727) 822-7225.