Life Lessons from the Back Seat of the Car

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A year or so ago I was chatting with a man at a party. He was a friend of my brother and we were talking about our kids, as parents do. He mentioned that his oldest was now 17 and driving, and I commented how helpful that must be: the kid could now drive his sister to activities and himself from A to B. The man agreed but then he sighed. “I miss the days when he was younger and I spent so much time driving him around. Some of the best conversations we ever had were when he was in the back seat of my car.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation because he’s right: many of the most profound – and often entirely unexpected and unplanned – conversations I’ve had with my kids have happened in my car.

Me at the wheel. Him or her in the backseat.

What is it about this set up? Is it the comfort of him not having to make eye contact? Is it because just sitting there gazing out the window enables her to freely process thoughts and, as a natural consequence, the questions come tumbling out?

More often than not, especially after picking one of them up after school or an activity, I drive silently – the quietness hopefully inviting an opening from which an honest thought, question or idea will inevitably jump out.

Sometimes, I’ll throw out a conversation starter, a seemingly benign question whose goal is to stimulate a back and forth. Sometimes it works, often it falls on grumpy ears.

If I have something on my mind, something going on the world, I use the drive as a chance to break the topic apart and make more meaningful for a younger mind. Or we hear something on the radio and it prompts a conversation.

And then there are the questions that I’m simply not prepared for but still have to respond to, seize the opportunity. Like when my daughter, aged maybe 8 or 9, asked me what sex felt like.

This morning, we talked about Puerto Rico and what we can do to help. We discussed how lucky and fortunate we are, and that it’s our duty to help. Because we’d like to think that, if it was us in a similar situation, others would willingly come to our aid. We reviewed the phrase “there but for the grace for God go I” and, without religious connotations, talked about the random nature of good and ill-fortune.

Big topics. Profound topics, I feel like we’ve covered them all in varying degrees – especially over the last 3-4 years. From how to handle a kid that’s annoying you at school, racism and equality, kindness and friendship, rape and consent, how this country managed to vote Donald Trump into office, sexting, old age and death, suicidal thoughts, what cancer is, climate change and natural disasters, to career anxiety (“what if I don’t ever get a job?”), alcohol, drugs, democratic vs authoritarian regimes and on and on. And there’s surely more to cover.

Much as I may moan about the never-ending schlepping of kids from here to there and back again, I realize now that inside my car is where the some of the most profound and valuable moments of parenting often happen.

And I, too, shall miss those conversation, when my kids are old enough to drive themselves.

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