Every summer, I drive the long journey from Chicago to Oklahoma with my boys to visit my folks. The trip takes about 13 hours, but it might as well take 10,000 years. There are endless breaks: potty breaks, snack breaks and mama-needs-a-rest breaks. Not to mention breaking up fights and listening to the perpetual whining of “Are we close?” So, Mama needed to do something to put some joy into our annual road trip. (Otherwise my children might never see their grandparents again.)
A few summers ago, I instituted something called “Ticket Time.” It was inspired by Pinterest –moms who use a ticket-reward system in the home, whereby kids earn tickets and redeem them for prizes such as movie night or extra TV screen time. I basically developed a road trip version. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it has saved my weary traveler’s soul!
Ticket Time goes a little something like this: each of my sons receive a designated amount of tickets every hour on the hour, which they can then trade in for an activity, a prize, a snack, a movie or a time period with a device.
Before we go on any road trip, I hit the dollar store or our own long-forgotten craft, game and movie bins, and gather as many activities or little toys that I can find. The imperative word is “cheap.” I don’t want anything valuable for Ticket Time:
1) I don’t have a huge budget.
2) Inevitably, everything in the car gets sucked into a mystery road trip vortex. (We’ve literally lost shoes and socks on a trip before!) So, I never purchase anything my kids would actually care about. But I do purchase items that will keep them busy or make them work or play together.
I organize all the items as individual prizes, group prizes or mystery prizes (these are wrapped) and assign each prize a certain ticket value. A blank notebook and marker might cost six tickets, but a big pack of M&M’s to share will cost 20 tickets. As they’ve gotten older, sometimes I’ll surprise them with “half-price” hour, where all the prizes go on sale. Or if we need to stop for gas, the kids can use tickets for a candy bar at the gas station.
They can earn more tickets by being kind and helpful to each other and me. At other times, they lose tickets for getting cranky or acting naughty. But what matters most is that my sons learn to band together, rather than argue and complain, while we’re on the road. Here’s what magically happens: Every time the clock changes to the next hour, my children burst into song, “It’s ticket time! It’s ticket time! It’s ticket, ticket, ticket, ticket, ticket time! YAY!”
Ticket time has become their favorite thing about our long road trips. And my favorite part (besides that awesome Ticket Time theme song, obviously) is watching my boys share, and listening to them team up in order to devise plans to “buy” the best prizes. When one of them is short a few tickets for an item, the others will pitch in and give their tickets to him. Or they’ll work together and save up for a big group prize. And bonus: they are always eager to earn more tickets. So, magically, they are cheerful and obliging throughout those long 13 hours in the car.
The icing on the proverbial road trip cake is that the entire event of singing the song, handing out tickets and trading tickets in for prizes, takes about 20 minutes. By the time the next hour is upon us, we’ve gone further down the road and they’ve barely realized that time has passed.
Will ticket time ever change their hearts or lives? Probably not. But for those long hours in the car each summer, my kids are being kind to each other, having a ton of fun and I’m making an otherwise pretty crazy long road trip, go by faster.
In my mind, that’s a huge prize in itself.
Aubrey Sampson is the author of Overcomer: Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Rebuilding Your Soul (Zondervan) and an upcoming book on Lament and Hope with NavPress. She travels around the country teaching at church events and retreats. Aubrey and her husband, Kevin, and their three crazy, hilarious boys are church planters in the Chicago area, where she serves on the teaching and preaching team.