PARENTS traveling with children on vacation must sometimes wonder why. Do siblings who are bickering in the back seat and asking ``How many more miles?'' ever glance at the passing scenery? Will a teen-age daughter ever be half as interested in sightseeing as she is in shopping? And is anything registering on an 8-year-old son who still prefers comic books to the real world?
Parents, desperate to stir up a little participation on the summer outings, can hand out cameras, which often lead to glazed eyes, a reflex click-click, and lots of double exposures. Or they can provide pens and notebooks.
The journal is the oldest side occupation of the traveler. Making brief, daily entries of activities and impressions can sharpen children's powers of observation and strengthen their writing skills.
Best of all, the exercise can produce a sometimes funny, sometimes moving chronicle of an inward journey that no camera can record.
Our family's introduction to children's travel-writing came when we planned a pre-Christmas trip from Boston to New York with our nine-year-old daughter. It would be a weekend of firsts: her first train ride, her first stay in a big-city hotel, her first visit to a city that as a young child she delighted in calling ``Yew Nork.''
Her fourth-grade teacher excused her from Friday classes, with one request -- that she keep a journal of the trip.
The student-turned-traveler accepted the assignment enthusiastically; reasoning, perhaps, that it was a small price to pay for a day of officially sanctioned hooky.
Within an hour of our pre-dawn departure on Amtrak, she was scribbling away on her first entry:
We're in Rhode Island, and my mother and I just went to the snack bar to get some breakfast. On the doors you press a little button at hand level, or you kick them at the bottom if your hands are full. I had to pass through three of those to get to the Amcaf'e!
Routine, finger-exercise stuff perhaps, but our correspondent was warming up. She followed with other observations about the train and the scenery, then exulted in her first glimpses of the city:
New York, here we are! We're on the 24th floor of the hotel. I think that I would like to live in our room forever. I love green.
The last sentence seems promisingly quirky.
During the next two days she wrote expansively about Radio City Music Hall, museums, and ``the grand F.A.O. Schwarz.'' Finally, after a long day, her sign-off was understandably brief: ``Hotel, here we come! Good night!''
Half an hour later she was writing by flashlight:
Not exactly Good Night, because someone is playing the trombone real loud and all the cars in New York are beeping their horns, it seems. I guess I can manage. Good night again!
The most touching entry was also the least expected. Here, far from her insular suburban world, she caught her first glimpse of poverty. As we waited -- and waited -- in Penn Station for a delayed train, she had ample opportunity to observe homeless women who were seeking refuge from the December cold outside:
Two ladies came up and sat down across from us. One was very friendly. She carried all her belongings in two bags. The other one probably had a wig on, she had worn-down men's sandals, and she was wearing socks, not pantyhose. But she must have cared some [about her appearance] because she was somehow wearing lipstick and fingernail polish.
Eventually police asked the women to move on, while our train finally took us home.
Since then there have been other trips, other journals. There has also been the discovery, in an attic box, of a journal I kept during a childhood trip to Springfield and New Salem, Ill. -- the heart of the historic ``land of Lincoln.''
Our daughter was fascinated by the pastiche of photographs, postcards, and matchbook covers in an accompanying scrapbook, as well as by the mid-1950s prices on a hotel menu (milkshake, 30 cents; cup of soup du jour, 15 cents; roast leg of fancy lamb with mint sauce, $2.65; assorted pies, 20 cents).
But most of all, she found delight in my journal. (Sample entry: ``With three children and three adults, one child has to sit in the front seat. We finally decided that each one would ride 57 miles.'')
As she read we became, for the moment, two youthful travelers, a generation apart, linked by childhood observations of strange places and new experiences and the timeless feelings of the pilgrim heart.