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Voices from backseat let us hear heart, mind

Published Feb. 27, 2006

To school, to the pediatrician, back to school to get the forgotten math book, to the grocery store, then home. Then out again to soccer.

And that's just Monday.

Parents and their kids spend a lot of time en route to somewhere else. We collectively bemoan how much time we spend driving our children around town. Even if you are limiting extra activities and your children take the bus to school, there's still plenty of time in the car.

But a friend of mine who teaches at my daughters' school mentioned something to me about a year ago that gave me a wake-up call and has really stuck with me. Her daughter was preparing to graduate high school and head to college. But she said the first big step in letting go came two years earlier when her daughter got her driver's license.

"For years so many things would come wafting out of the back seat. The car was like this wonderful, "cocooney' place to talk," Nancy Dowling, mother of 18-year-old Annie, told me again recently. "Sometimes the floodgates of whatever was going on socially or academically would just open up. I did not anticipate how much I would miss that when she was 16 and could drive herself. Then it was her own world, her own music. I no longer had that link."

Her words break my heart, haunt me and remind me to make the most of that time we spend going from point A to point B to points C, D, E, F, G and beyond.

"You just can cover even basics that you didn't get to talk about at home and sometimes it's weightier things. Sometimes they have questions that are just better answered with that little bit of distance from the back seat to the front seat," Dowling said. "I remember one time she asked me if having a crush on someone hurts. There were times that she would hold things in and not share them and then eventually they would come out and very often it was in the car. It was just easier that way."

A car gives both parents and child a captive audience as well as enough distance to avoid intense eye contact. Several years ago when I was writing a column about how to talk to children about the facts of life, Peggy Johns, supervisor of Health Education with Pinellas County Schools, told me these were reasons why the car is a great place to discuss this sensitive topic. I actually took her advice last summer when my girls and I were driving through North Carolina visiting friends. They had heard me talking earlier with a friend about someone else who had decided she wanted to have a baby.

"How can a mother decide when she wants to have a baby?" my then 6-year-old asked. Her 8-year-old sister pointed out that I had always told them God made babies so what did the mom and dad have to do with it.

So there, sandwiched between the tall pines that line Interstate 77, I told them how the sperm fertilizes the egg. My only regret is that I didn't tell them on the way to the grocery store because our drive was long enough that they had time for too many follow-up questions.

While talking is the dominant activity in the family car, all that driving time can also serve as a study hall. We go over multiplication tables and spelling words. When my kids were younger I pointed to letters in signs for them to name or had them spot things out the window that started with a certain letter. And it's a great feeling for parent and child when the beginning reader can suddenly read the road signs and billboards you drive past.

Dr. Tonya Altmann, who is on the board of the American Academy of Pediatrics and studies the effects of media on children, told me car time can be great quality time with kids but it's being compromised by DVD players and hand-held video games.

"Even if it's just a five-minute trip home from soccer and you turn the TV on, that's time you could be talking about how practice went or how their day at school was," she said in a phone interview.

Altmann, who has a private practice and is a clinical instructor at the University of California in Los Angeles, hates seeing parents use car TVs to keep younger children occupied and quiet.

"For younger kids, that time driving around in the car is one of the most important times to talk to your kids and say: "Oh look at that bird over there,' or "Look, there's a red car,' " she said. Plus, if you start using a TV just for trips around town with a young child, that becomes the habit as they grow older.

Altmann knows car TVs and portable DVD players can help on long car trips, but thinks even then there should be some limits. On a two-hour car trip, maybe use the TV for 30 minutes, she suggests. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends parents limit screen time at home, in the car or anywhere, to one to two hours a day. And it suggests children under 2 not watch TV at all.

Another reminder for us to make the most of that time in the car is in the title of the parenting book, Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? There will be certain days down the road when the time we spend in the car is the only time we spend with our child all day. And even that time may be shared with his or her friends.

But my friend Nancy Dowling points out how that also can be beneficial to the parent-child relationship.

"It's also wonderful," she said, "to hear what kids are saying to each other in that back seat."

Katherine Snow Smith's Rookie Mom column runs regularly in the south Pinellas editions of the Times. You can reach her by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.