Why do children complain about long car or train journeys?

“If I got ten cents for every time my child says ‘are we there soon?’, I’d already be rich”: That’s what many parents might say to themselves when they go on a family trip. Having three small children myself, I know all too well the fear that can take hold when the interrogation begins barely 30 minutes after the start of a trip that was supposed to last five hours.

It all starts out quite politely. “Mom, when are we getting there?” shouts a small voice from the back seat of the car. Then the tone becomes more offensive and we begin to compare the distance that I had announced an hour earlier and the one that still needs to be covered…

Read more: Let the children be bored!

By the time the trip ends, I’ve usually decided never to go on vacation with the kids again. But why do the journeys seem so excruciatingly long for them?

Perception of distances

One explanation is that our perception of time changes with age, often resulting in the feeling that time passes faster as we get older. This will give the impression that “Christmas comes faster every year”.

It is believed that this impression of time passing faster comes from the fact that with age each duration becomes a smaller part of our lives. At age 7, for example, one year represents 14.30% of your entire life. At age 70, that’s only 1.43% of your life. A five-hour journey thus seems far more impressive to a 5-year-old child than to a 50-year-old, simply because it corresponds to a longer part of his life.

But there are other things to consider. As we grow up, as we grow older, we understand what relates to distances and geography. This wealth of knowledge helps us find benchmarks and clues to assess where we are on a journey and the journey that remains to be covered.

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For example, if I’m going from Paris to Amiens, I know we’re entering the final leg of the journey when we pass Beauvais. In the UK, if I’m going from Manchester to Devon, I know I’m about halfway when we leave Birmingham. This information helps me structure my time. I also have a GPS that gives me an arrival time, adjusts it in real time, warns me of obstacles and possible delays. Without direct access to these facts, children rely on what adults tell them to assess the progress of the journey.

ability to concentrate

The uncertainty children face is compounded by the lack of control they have over the journey itself. Adults decide which gas station to stop at and which route to take, which can make the journey feel like it’s dragging on.

In fact, temporal uncertainty or the feeling of not knowing when something is going to happen can slow down the passage of time, and it is a phenomenon that we also experience in adulthood.

When travelers don’t have accurate information about a delayed flight, the wait is harder to bear.

Remember the last time your train inexplicably stopped right outside the station, or you saw the “waiting” sign flashing endlessly in front of baggage claim as you exited the plane. I bet none of these issues were resolved quickly in your eyes – and you would have appreciated a notification from the train conductor or airport staff. Not knowing what is going on gives us the impression that events are dragging on.

As soon as a deadline is in doubt, controlling it will quickly become our primary goal. Humans have a limited cognitive capacity and cannot be aware of everything all the time. We must therefore prioritize according to the circumstances.

When a deadline becomes uncertain, we pay much more attention to it than usual, which gives a feeling that time is moving much more slowly. Since children are more subject to these uncertainties than adults, they will investigate the progress of the journey without distraction, whatever that may be.

Boredom and entertainment

Finally, if time in the car can last forever for children, it is simply because they are locked in and have nothing to do but watch the scenery roll by through the window. This experience confronts them with boredom, while their parents, in front, probably enjoy having some time to sit and think.

Children’s desire for stimulation and entertainment often causes this boredom to set in quickly, slowing the passage of time. Like temporal uncertainty, our level of boredom affects our perception of durations by changing the attention we pay to it.

When our attention is not monopolized by an activity, time seems to slow down.

In these cases, we tend to scrutinize the clock, giving us the impression that time is stretching out. Conversely, when we are happily busy, we pay little attention to time, our attention span is occupied by other things, and we feel that time is passing quickly.

So what should parents do? Those of you who have a big trip coming up may be rushing to stock up on games and snacks to keep your kids entertained. However, I urge you to be careful. If you manage to reduce the chorus “are we there soon?”, you might wake up there the risk of another catchphrase: “My heart hurts! And when a child gets motion sickness, both experience and research show that it’s up to the parents that the journey will seem much longer…

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