If you had to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much you typically enjoy time in the car with your preschoolers, what number would you pick? For most moms it’s not the most fun place ever to be. Getting out of the house is often harried; sibling bickering between seats is common fare and difficult to police while driving; there’s no way to soothe a crying baby from the front seat. It can be a “let’s just get through this” scenario. Everyone’s strapped in and immobile till the destination’s reached; if things aren’t going well it can feel like jail.
When our first child was about two years old, we developed the habit of talking to him very regularly while driving to keep him engaged and distracted, so that he wouldn’t melt down. We would frequently point out diggers, motorcycles, police cars, and he became accustomed to us keeping him continually occupied. Our goal was to keep him happy and prevent all of us from having to endure a potential meltdown that his boredom or dissatisfaction might elicit. My father pointed out the dynamic to us and suggested that perhaps less frequent engagement from us would ultimately be more helpful for all, but at the time we weren’t ready to hear it. It wasn’t till much later that we started pondering America’s entitlement mindset (here: our son believed that the car ride was all about him) and how it relates to parenting.
Since then I’ve reflected that what happens in a family car is, in a way, a microcosm of the household and the family members that comprise it. If parents are in the habit of expecting and “managing” misbehavior from children, then they’ll likely seek to mollify kids in the car too, through talk and/or distraction (such as we did with our son), playing a DVD, offering continual snacks or drinks, or seating a parent next to the child in the back seat. If parents are in the habit of expecting children to obey and of building accountability into their transactions with children, then this will be reflected in how car-time is handled as well.
The thing about time in the car is, it can be very positive and growing time between parents and their kids. My next-door neighbor often says that she has some of her best conversations with her kids in the car… while they’re all there together, buckled in. Great questions arise; her kids will often share important thoughts or experiences. She and her husband parent very intentionally and their expecations for their kids’ behavior are clear and enforced; it’s a household in which harmony generally prevails. Consequently the car can provide that kind of useful, growing time for them; they have set themselves up for it.
Lately it occurred to me that these types of conversations are exactly what God meant when He told the Israelites, through Moses, how parents should instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. After He relayed the ten commandments he said: ” These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6-8) Surely if such words had been spoken by God in our era and culture, He would have inserted “when you drive in the car” right in there with “when you walk along the road.” His point is: use the time “in-transit” time that life with little one provides to go deep and discuss God’s ways.
But this type of driving conversation – which is beginning to occur with our 4-year old as well – can’t happen if time in the car is frequently wild, frenzied, or fraught with tension. If my son is behaving in a demanding way, my daughter is bickering with him and whining at me, and neither is heeding my instructions to stop – nothing positive will result from our car time. If such circumstances become the norm during our car rides, then all of us are missing out.
Of course, wanting to cultivate a peaceful and fruitful experience in the car and actually living this out are two different things. Even committed moms can struggle to create an environment where kids behave acceptably. (I know, I am one.) The lack of immediate accountability from a driving mom can be a tremendous temptation for children, especially strong-willed ones, to misbehave. And learning patience and self-control are hard lessons from little ones, and sometimes lesson that take a long time to fully sink in. I have to revisit car etiquette every so often, re-train my children in appropriate conduct, and be sure everyone understands that being in the car doesn’t translate to a free-for-all, behavior-wise.
One tip we adopted was to teach our kids to be silent for a few minutes in the car. If things have gone awry, especially on a long journey, and tempers are sour, having a no-talk time can soothe frayed nerves and allow better moods to re-emerge. Our “no talk” sessions will usually last five minutes or so and can help a great deal to re-set the tone. (It also helps to facilitate tired ones falling asleep if the timing is right!)