In the Car with My Teenagers
A friend of mine, whose children were in high school when my daughter was in preschool, once gave me great advice about spending time in the car with her kids. She referred to the car as the safe place where her kids could freely express themselves without judgement from their mother. “The truth came out on those drives,” she told me. Her teenagers would openly discuss issues they were having about anything from sex to drinking to friends. At the time, when my friend shared the car-therapy tip with me, I could not relate. After all, my kids were toddlers, so we spent most of our time listening to The Wiggles, playing the same songs over and over again. I did, however, tuck what my friend had told me in the back of my mind.
I am currently in the thick of raising teenagers. My daughter is a junior in high school, and in two short years, she will be heading off to college. The clock is ticking fast. A few months ago, she got her license, which finally meant a little less time I would have to spend as my children’s personal chauffeur. When I first found out that she isn’t allowed to park the car at school until she’s a senior, I was bummed––because the driving break I had been dreaming about wasn’t coming that fast. I would still need to make the round-trip drive to and from school a few times a day, depending on my kids’ activities. But then I flipped the switch in my mind, and rather than complain about being an unpaid mom-Uber driver, I decided to embrace the time alone with my kids. As soon as my daughter leaves for the next chapter in her life, my son, who is in eighth grade, will get his license, and then my days of driving my kids and their friends everywhere will end abruptly.
Once my mindset changed, I remembered the valuable advice my friend had given me a decade ago. And she was right. It’s the one place where I hear it all. At school pickup, I listen to the details about their day—the good and the bad, trying to help them sort through issues. When I drive their friends, I overhear their conversations, learn how they treat one another, and find out what they’re up to. Sometimes I ask questions like I’m an investigative reporter, collecting information that I may not have heard if I wasn’t driving a group of kids around. Even better, the truth comes out when it’s just me alone with one of my children. I know who is vaping, who is drinking, where the parties are, who might be experimenting with drugs. I’m careful not to sound too nosy or annoying. I just remind them that it’s safe inside the car and they can talk freely—and most of the time they do.
Studies have shown how important it is for families to sit down together for dinner as often as they can. With sports, games, activities, and studying, family dinners are not always viable in our house. But let’s face it—it’s not about the meal––it’s about engaging with our children. So the car is where we connect with each other; it’s where I get to hold on to them a little longer. It doesn’t mean I talk to them incessantly on every car ride. We can sit in silence too, or sing out loud to pop music, or laugh at my son’s choice of inappropriate rap music. Every now and then, I glance at their profiles, noticing a ripe pimple here and there, and I admire their beautiful and changing faces. Most importantly, I savor each moment, enjoying the precious and limited time we have before I send them into the world. In another decade, I will have to find new ways to bond with my children as they journey through the next phases of their lives. For now, I will stop complaining about how many times I have to schlep my kids around town, and instead welcome it––grateful that I can.