Family life by the dashboard light

Whether it’s the daily carpool or the Great American Road Trip, your family likely spends hours a day in the car. Sure, you may gripe about traffic, boredom, or radio tastes, but you should know that those miles can not only transport us from point A to point B, they can move us toward better family relationships and lasting memories.

Some find the “captive audience” factor fosters communication: Eye contact, which can make some kids squirm, is not required; and there aren’t many other options. “They can’t leave the room, pick up the phone, or open their geometry book,” says Mary, a Roseville mother of three. “Many times things have come up during our drive time that I’ll make a point of talking to my kids about more at bedtime.”

Sometimes driving affords rare parent-child intimacy. Mary, whose oldest is a busy high school senior, says, “I often feel like car rides with just the two of us are the only times we really get to talk. I know a mom who gave her daughter a car for her 16th birthday to avoid chauffeuring her to all her activities. A month later the mom was really upset that her daughter was too independent and they never talked anymore. I could have predicted that.”

Michelle welcomes the daily rounds about South Minneapolis with her four children, ages 6 through 13, as bonding time. Because she purposely avoids using a cell phone in the car, the kids don’t compete with catch-up calls or distracted driving, and “they tend to divulge information they wouldn’t [otherwise] share. For example, Jonathan, 13, will talk about his feelings on the war in Iraq if he hears some news. Kieran, age 6, will ask me to tell him stories about when I was little.” All four, she adds, “will join in a lively discussion of who are the ‘cool’ kids at school, who are not, and who ‘likes’ who.”

Indeed, the role of “the innocuous taxi driver” gives another Minneapolis mom insight into what’s really going on with her daughters’ friends: “When there are a group of girls in the car, they just start talking about boys, school, everything, as though I wasn’t there. I doesn’t hurt that I am humming to myself and appear totally disinterested in their conversation.”

Navigating local streets can also be a learning experience. “Kids spend so much time being delivered places that I’m not so sure they know where they are,” said Martha, whose daughter Lucia is 13. “My ‘new thing’ is getting her involved with directions and landmarks.” The two recently made a trip to the Bloomington REI store from their Minneapolis home. Martha provided driving directions, then let Lucia co-pilot.

When it comes to road trips, who can blame anyone driving through a plains state for installing an in-car DVD player? (I have less empathy for those who can’t make it from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie without a Disney fix.) Still, many veteran cross-country drivers find alternative occupations to help kids pass the time: they sing, make frequent stops to visit historic markers, throw a ball around, do crafts, read aloud, listen to books on tape, play games, or do crossword puzzles.

“Hearing a bunch of girls singing over and over at the top of their lungs Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’ is great,” said Martha, who drove with Lucia and two cousins across South Dakota last summer. “I think it’s important on long trips to allow singing as loud as possible – for at least a couple of songs – to let out some of that pent-up energy.”

Michelle literally has car entertainment for her family’s annual East Coast vacation down to an art. She recommends drawing materials, origami, and her favorite, recommended by a local toy store, a bag of pipe cleaners: “They all kept busy for hours, creating different creatures, designs, and at one point when I turned around, they were all wearing pipe cleaner glasses!”

Movies would have been nice when her kids were little, said Mary, “but then we wouldn’t have read as many books together, or played those mind-numbing car-ride games that made us all get really silly. Those are the times they remember and still talk about.”

And ask me about the life-saving lattes at Lasso Espresso, right off I-80 in Gothenburg, Neb., my family’s favorite landmark en route to the Rockies. There’s also a Pony Express museum and a local park where you can picnic.

My advice: Don’t damn that traffic jam; slow down life in the fast lane, and let drive time as work overtime as quality time.

Kris Berggren secretly likes to crank up the rock and roll and sing when she’s all by herself in the car. Which is hardly ever.

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