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Driving in Cars with Kids

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Once your children are old enough to get involved in activities, you will spend a lot of time driving them around. Even though Judy and I restrict the number of activities our kids are involved in, with four kids, it’s still a lot of driving. I’ve been told car rides are a great place for parents to bond with kids. They’re a captive audience and you can ask them any kind of question. I agree but it’s not easy. Here are some specific tips to help make conversation with your kids during car rides:

1. Think of specific questions, conversation topics, and games for longer drives: Most of making conversation is observing people and seeing what they do; I’ve had two separate sex talks with my boys in the car. During college, I remember my dad driving me somewhere and without transition, asked me a deeply personal question. I think we were talking about the weather and then he said “So do you masturbate?” That was so memorably awkward. However, I love the courage he demonstrated in broaching the topic. It was certainly specific. My second son, Micah (15), has a lot of intellectual curiosity and the prospect of coming up with questions together is engaging and fun for him. It’s been said “How was your day?” is not a good question because it’s so easy to give a one-word answer like “Fine”. Same with questions like “What did you do today?” with “Nothing” as the response.  I tend to agree because it’s lazy and doesn’t require any effort or knowledge of your child. Specific questions are more effective at drawing a person out because they demonstrate you’ve been paying attention to your child. Here’s an example: “You were stressed about your math test last night. How did you do on the word problem part?” You may still get a one-word reply because your kid just doesn’t want to talk about it right now with you but you’ve demonstrated you know something about his/her life and that’s valuable. Road trip games are also fun for the whole car - some suggested ones here. Sometimes these games can be quite painful but suffering together is bonding as well.

2. Prepare yourself and your kids: Start with low expectations. One ground rule we’ve established for drives is phones are not allowed. That’s a game-changer. You definitely want to prepare them in advance for that. It’s easier for us because we set ground rules for devices at home. For example, we do not allow devices or books at the table during lunch or dinner. Recently, my youngest son, Elliot (11), and I drove up to San Francisco to see Hamilton. The car ride in traffic was about 100 minutes. Elliot asked “What are we going to do in the car?” He wanted to play Nintendo Switch. I let him bring it but I said I wanted to talk first. He wasn’t happy about that. Once we started driving, he started to talk about his day and how he dominated chaos tag during lunch recess of his homeschool day. You can prepare your kids and it may backfire because they simply don’t want to talk. That’s okay. You’ll always encounter resistance in these situations. Have a number of minutes in your mind that you’re going to persist at making conversation, hit that number and then you can feel better about giving up. 

3. Read the car: You've heard it advised when entering a social situation to read the room. The same applies to driving in cars with kids. This is not easy because it’s about nonverbal cues and unfortunately, you shouldn’t be watching because you need to be watching the road. But observe your kid when he/she gets in the car and notice the tone when they reply to your questions and you’ll get a pretty good read on the car. I remember mornings when I used to drive Caleb (18) to high school. He was usually sullen and would give one-word answers. I used to take it personally but it had to do with waking up at 6:30 AM and not being fully awake and alert. Recently, I’ve become more of a morning person and am ready to have a meaningful conversation. So Caleb would be chatty when I picked him up from school but I would be ready to take a nap. One thing that’s tough about being a parent is often the moments your kid wants to talk, you don’t want to and vice versa. 

4. Prioritize their agenda over yours and listen: After Elliot’s basketball games, I want to analyze the game and dissect my son’s performance. Elliot is not interested in that, probably because he knows I’m going to critique him. He is ready to move on, get home, eat lunch, and play Minecraft. He doesn’t care about basketball the way I do and lecturing him about it will not increase his interest. Elliot can drone on for quite a long time about volcanoes, World War II facts, and how koalas commit suicide in captivity by jumping off tree branches. It’s really hard to focus and listen to what he’s saying. I try to pick up on maybe every 3rd sentence or so. The great thing is he doesn’t have a high expectation that I listen to everything he’s saying. He’s content with me being a sounding board for him to regurgitate knowledge. Some kids can really go off. I don’t think you have to listen and process everything. That would be incredibly exhausting and very difficult to do. In those situations, I try to take some mental notes: Like, wow, he knows a lot about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the different types of lava flow. Those mental notes are helpful for some future situation where I can call back to that knowledge. Every now and then, I jot down notes about my kids; especially some of the funny stuff they say or do. Memory is fallible and a picture may be worth a thousand words but words give context and texture in a way that a photo never can.

5. Pray together: Our family prays aloud together every night - each member of the family saying a short prayer. We don’t critique each other’s prayers but every now and then, someone will call someone out for being distracted or going through the motions. This pattern makes praying together in the car a little less awkward. I generally like to pray with my kids on the way to an event and praying for the event (school, music lesson/performance, sports game, etc.) Other times, I might pray for something we observed like “LORD, I pray for the people involved in the accident we just passed by. We pray for safety and healing and recovery.”

6. Sing to music and discuss podcasts:  Abby (13) just wants to listen to music when she’s in the car. And it tends to be the same songs. Now, I try to get some sentences of conversation out of her before she turns on the music. Singing together to music in the car is the best, especially on longer car rides. I like to dissect the meaning of song lyrics as well. Micah and Elliot enjoy podcasts and some audiobooks. Elliot enjoys the Stuff You Should Know podcast. It’s easy to have music or podcasts supplant any conversation. There should always be some space to discuss the podcast after it’s done. I might ask questions like “What did you think? Which point was most interesting that you didn’t know? What would you apply from this? Lastly, you don’t need to fill up every vacant section of time in the car ride. This leads me to my last point.

7. Enjoy silence: One of the hardest things for me is being OK with silence. Talkative people can fear silence. I think a lot of parents (perhaps moms in particular) have trouble with silence and want to continually fill the car with talking. This can create a stressful environment for both child and parent. I think parents get way more stressed about silence than kids do because we often feel obligated to make some kind of conversation. By contrast, I think dads are often too content with silence. If you’ve had a stressful day at work, the last thing you want is more noise and to have to listen to your kid talk about drama with his sandwich. Another good time to be silent is when you drive your kid and his/her friends around. You learn so much about them from the interaction. 

Here’s to meaningful conversations in the mundane activities of life!

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