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Life in the Carpool Lane


As parents, we have many titles. Nurse, teacher playmate, appointment keeper. But chauffer is perhaps one word that strikes dread in the hearts of many parents, especially when it comes to carpooling. A car full of rambunctious kids doesn’t sound like a picnic in the park.

But before you bristle at the thought of the never-ending pick-ups, drop-offs and miles on the road, carpooling can be an invaluable window into your child’s world. It’s a time when you get the chance to see – and hear – them interacting with their peers and dishing on what goes on in their lives everyday.

As passengers, your child and their friends sometimes seem to forget that you’re there, and engage in conversations that aren’t normally discussed in front of adults, says Kate Malinski, LCSW, a child and family therapist and parenting coach in Austin, Texas.

“It’s a funny aspect of the kid world: forgetting that their driver is also their parent and has ears,” she says.

Comfortably settled in the backseat, your kids and their friends lose track of time and space, and soon begin to chatter on about friends, teachers, music, movies, Facebook, the list goes on and on. Be prepared, however; you may hear things that will surprise you and the inevitable questions will come up: Should you redirect the kids , saying that it isn’t an appropriate things to be talking about? Should you interrupt them and ask them what they’re talking about or where they heard ‘that word’? According to Malinski, the answer is no.

“Take a deep breath and try to shelve your emotions for the moment,” she says.

“Pretend you’re a social anthropologist and this is your field observation. You’re in this car specifically to find out what is really going on in the heads of your chosen population: school-aged children.”

Malinski suggests, trying to be “invisible” and not distracting while taking mental notes.

“A different approach would be to take the therapist role, mostly listening, talking the least, and asking questions.”

“You, as the therapist, won’t pass judgement, or share your own opinions. Rather, if you talk at all, it will be to offer questions that are designed to bring to light the thought processes, beliefs, and values or your child. Such questions include: What do you think of that? What does that word mean to you? Have you ever talked about that with your friends? What do the think? Once you’ve posed the questions, let your child and their friends do all of the talking.”

Carpooling also allows you to learn about your child’s friends. Who is the bossy one, the sweet one, the queen, the wanna be?

Once all of the kids are dropped off and you’re back at home, take a few minutes to review your notes. Collect your thoughts and make a plan of action, says Malinski.

“Maybe while you and your child are making dinner or cleaning up after dinner, or alone in the car,” she says. “You could start the conversation with something like, ‘Remember when Casey said ___, What did you think about that?”

According to Malinski, the goal is to take advantage of this teachable moment.

“Now that you know what’s going on in your child’s life. Reinforce that you’re an ‘askable parent’ and gently share your values and/or correct any misinformation that your child may have. Keep the relationship in mind at all times.”

The thing to remember is that being the chauffeur doesn’t last forever. Soon, your kids will be driving themselves and this valuable access to their world will be gone. Take advantage of this time. Drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the backseat banter. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

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