"I only wear underwear to bed."
"Do you tell that to all the girls?"
This is a snippet from an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor. Oh, wait. It’s actually a backseat conversation between my son Jackson and our neighbor Mia, both third-graders, on their way home from a baseball game. It was one of those kids-sure-growup-fast-these-days exchanges that end up in your Facebook newsfeed. It’s also one of those parenting milestones you don’t recognize as such until you’re in it: manning a carpool.
Ah, the carpool. It takes a savvy procreator to manage the shifting schedules, the flaky parents, the chatty kids guilty of first-degree TMI. That’s why we decided it was time to establish a carpool constitution for future generations to drive by. With the help of expert insight and real-life tales, we’ve created a road map to ensure that this year your carpool hits as few potholes as possible.
Article I. Parents shall not overlook the redeeming benefits of participating in the carpool.
That’s right, we said it: Carpool doesn’t just have to be a perfunctory exercise in going here-to-there. Sure, you have a serious duty — namely, transporting children safely. But you also have an opportunity to observe your kid in his natural habitat.
“The carpool is a hidden gem for parents,” says Susan Stiffelman, M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. “As a fly on the wall, you get a real sense of how your child acts socially with her peers.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a mom of two and a family counselor in New York City. “As our children get older and their lives become more peer- and tech-centric, carpools allow kids to have forced, face-to-face interaction with other kids. It’s a chance to use and develop social skills that may not be as available in other situations.”
When you do get the download on a facet of your kid’s life you didn’t know existed, be sure to discuss any real-life implications with him later. (Example: “Jackson, I thought you slept in pajamas.”) Under no circumstances should you do this during the carpool. Enough said.
Plus, carpools can be fun! That doesn’t mean you have to keep the kids entertained while you drive. When April Castillo, a mom of three in Melbourne, FL, started her first carpool, “I packed activities, books, games, you name it,” she says. “I wanted the 30-minute ride to be a fun, educational experience.” She quickly realized that the backseat was a little universe unto itself. “Now it’s either their own conversation or silence.”
Article II. It is the inalienable right and obligation of the adults to create a carpool plan that enjoys the consent of all parties.
In 2014, information can be shared at the speed of tweets, so it’s simple for adults to get on the same page (a private Facebook group even) and create a common set of carpool rules. “Talk with the other moms and dads to make sure rules and expectations are consistent,” suggests Craig Pierce, Ph.D., a family therapist and author of Parenting Without Distraction: The Attunetion Approach.
Keep the carpool Bill of Rights simple and easy to remember: Take turns talking; keep hands to yourself; no snacking unless authorized; what the driver says goes. Stiffelman suggests putting a positive spin on the rules. “I like to phrase things in an optimistic manner,” she says. “Instead of ‘No teasing,’ say ‘Only speak kindly to others.’ ” Consequences for breaking rules should be consistent as well.
This way, everyone comes into the situation with the same understanding and expectations. Having rules that vary isn’t a recipe for success.
Article III. Parents shall make no law prohibiting or abridging freedom of speech, but will also monitor it closely.
This is known as the “But my dad says . . .” scenario. Here comes Nicky, the talkative fifth-grader, who loves to regurgitate the opinions of his mother the Demopublican or his father the Republicrat. Remember: you are the adult and he is the child. Even if you vehemently oppose his diatribes, “don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist,” suggests Stiffelman. “If you haven’t heard a complaint from one of the other kids, leave it alone. As an adult, you’re capable of hearing an opinion you don’t agree with. It’s about how it affects your children.”
In other words, your primary job is to make all of the kids feel heard and understood. Does Nicky intimidate them? Would they like the chance to share their opinion?
If Nicky treats your ride like it’s his campaign bus, try this, says Stiffelman: “Nicky, I appreciate that you have strong feelings about the president. It’s okay to share as long as you also listen to others.”
Article IV. Should an adult driver commit a terrible carpool infraction, the accused shall enjoy the right to a fair trial.
We must understand that moms and dads can — and will — make mistakes. Castillo recalls a particularly stressful screw-up. “When leaving school one day, I backed up and ran over something and immediately thought it was one of my carpool kids,” she says. “I freaked out. After all were accounted for, I realized it was someone’s backpack.” She paid to replace everything, even the broken pencils.
But what about recurring problems: parents or kids who are consistently late, never register a schedule change, or ask at a moment’s notice to pick up a shift?
Dr. Dorfman’s suggestion? See Article II. “People are more likely to adhere to the structure that they were participants in creating and that was clear from the get-go.”
Stiffelman cautions parents not to be quick to judge a “flaky” parent. “Are there considerations you’re missing? Is there a new baby or an illness in the family? Try to find out if there is a situation causing the problem or if this is simply how this person handles life.”
Most important, don’t take it out on the kid. “It’s not a child’s fault if he’s always running late or only wearing one shoe,” adds Stiffelman. “Don’t say to him, ‘Isn’t it nice that we’re always on time to pick you up?’ The 9-year-old isn’t responsible for these issues.” And now, with this constitution complete, please gas up, go forth, and gather ye children.
Illustration Credit: Robin Rosenthal