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The Summer Family Road Trip Can Help Build a Better Family

Creating family cohesion is possible if we use our time together strategically.

Key points

  • A vast majority of young people imagine themselves having children later in life.
  • Sharing time together isn’t enough to build family cohesion. We need to use that time strategically.
  • Turning the trip into something challenging can make a family vacation more memorable.

With Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the rear-view mirror, we can look forward to something far less artificial (or commercial). The family vacation. For many families, this will be a summer road trip, an idea that conjures images of dread or warm memories, depending on your childhood. If you are going to vacation as a family, though, there are plenty of ways to use that time together to build some momentum for a more resilient, cohesive, loving set of relationships.

First, though, let’s be clear. Most young adults still want families. A recent analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth shows that the vast majority of young men (86.6 percent) are hoping to raise a family. It’s much the same for young women, with 87.3 percent of teenage girls also seeing children in their futures. This reminds us that the idea of family is still strong, despite the waning of rituals like formal marriage and the ever-increasing rate of divorce.

Building family cohesion and experiencing the bonds that we desire, however, requires some work. The summer road trip or a wilderness camping excursion (really any time spent intensely together with our partners and children) can help renew and sustain relationships. Or not. Not all family trips are created equal. Here are some tips that might help turn a road trip into something more special.

First, consider doing something that limits screen access, at least for part of the vacation. That goes for the adults as much as the kids. Put the phones away while driving (other than for searching for information about the places you’re going). Turn off the iPads and forget about movies while driving. It might sound horrendous, but it means that children and adults have to look to each other for their entertainment.

Second, do something challenging. Amusement parks, historic sites, and zoos are all good fun, but consider something that will generate a real story, as in: Whoa, did you see that? It's a sort of story that gives a family a history of working together. Camping in the wilderness usually brings such moments. But turning off the GPS and just roaming without a destination might produce some surprise encounters as well.

Third, give the kids decision-making power. That means giving them some room to explore in age-appropriate ways. Let them decide where to eat. Let them price hotels and get the best deal. Let them research the best things to see in Wyoming. You might be surprised to learn how competent your computer-savvy 9-year-old can be. Or that your 15-year-old actually has some interests other than TikTok challenges.

Fourth, do more than ‘snap and post.’ Gather mementos, print the photos (yup, real old school), bring home the weird and unusual, and let everyone tell the story of the summer vacation together when you’re back.

These are all only suggestions. But they follow a script. A car trip (or any travel, for that matter) becomes easily forgotten and does little if anything to build family cohesion unless an effort is made to intentionally build relationships. Every great road trip movie has some elements of what I’ve said here (think Little Miss Sunshine for a poignant example). Yours can too.

This summer (for those of you reading this in the Northern Hemisphere), go on vacation with those you love (or would like to love more). Just think about which trip is going to be the best for your relationships, and which is going to be remembered as nothing but a long horrendous slog.


Graham, K., Guzzo, K.B., and Manning, W.D., (2022). Teens’ Self-Reported Expectations and Intentions for Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing. (Research Brief). Bethesda, MD: Marriage Strengthening Research and Dissemination Center.

National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). 2017-2019 National Survey of Family Growth Public-Use Data and Documentation. Hyattsville, MD: CDC National Center for Health Statistics.

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