Sometime last year, one of my teacher-friends shared a story her teenage son had told her. Though I can’t recall the details, I remember thinking how personal the story was. I think it had something to do with a party, or a group of kids at school, or more likely, both. It was the type of story I would have been horrified to share with my parents.
“Wow, he really tells you a lot,” I commented. “That’s great that he’s so open with you.” With three boys of my own who will be teenagers all too soon, I wanted to know her secret.
She paused a moment, then said, “You know what? I think it’s the car.” Seeing my puzzled expression, she went on to explain that the conversations she’s had with her son—especially the personal ones—almost always took place when they were in the car together.
“I think it’s because there’s not much else to do besides talk,” she added, “It’s very non-confrontational. He’s looking out the window, I’m driving, and conversation just happens.”
Iwas reminded of my colleague’s experience with her son when I was driving around with the boys last week. We were almost home, but when I glanced in the rearview mirror, I noticed that Colin had fallen asleep. At almost-five-years-old (his birthday is this weekend!), he’s in the transition phase between napping and not napping. He refuses to take a nap when we’re home, preferring to play with his older brothers. But once we’re in a car, he’s out.
I asked Matthew and Toby if it would be okay if we drove around a bit to give Colin a chance to nap just a little longer (Another side effect of this napping-no-napping phase is that he’s been incredibly grumpy). As I wrote the other week, we just purchased a minivan. The novelty of the captains’ chairs hasn’t worn off yet, so the boys were more than happy to go for a ride.
Because I’m always looking for a reason to have coffee, I suggested that we go to the drive-through of our local Dunkin’ Donuts, which is just down the street from our house, a 5-minute car ride, tops. Because of traffic, however, what started out as “let’s drive around for a few more minutes” turned into a 45-minute Odyssey (pun intended). My guess was that there must have been an accident that caused a bottleneck somewhere; traffic was bumper-to-bumper with no end in sight.
Funny thing was, the boys barely noticed. Colin was fast asleep, his head tilted back, mouth agape in his signature car-napping pose (there might have been drool). And Matthew and Toby? They were too busy talking, laughing, looking out the window. Among the many things that captured their attention:
- Gophers. Apparently there’s a family of gophers living at the large office park near us. Every time we drive by, Matthew is always on the lookout. “Oh, they’re so cute! Mommy, look!” Stuck in traffic, I actually could look this time (Usually, it’s “Mommy, look at that!” while I’m in the middle of making a left turn). As we watched four gophers pop up and down in the grass, we reminisced about last year’s trip to the Detroit Zoo during our trip to Michigan (my in-laws are there). “Which do you think are cuter, Toby?” Matthew asked his brother, “The gophers or the prairie dogs we saw at the zoo?” Toby―who as the middle child is notorious for trying to please everyone―answered, “I don’t know. That’s tough. . . I like them both. Equally!”
- Music. One of the things the boys love about the new minivan is that they can read the song titles and artists on the dashboard screen instead of constantly asking me to “Shazaam it” using my iPhone. They figured out that there’s a 5-second delay after the song starts before the title is displayed, so they’ve made a game of guessing the song before that happens.
- Taylor Swift. Speaking of music, in that 45-minute car ride to Dunkin’ Donuts, we heard 3 more Taylor Swift songs, making it a grand total of 6 for the day. I know this tidbit of information because Matthew had been keeping track. When “Bad Blood” came on, their discussion turned to the video. Toby: “This video is so weird. There’s all these girls and they’re all dressed up like they’re going to war in the Hunger Games.” Matthew: “I know! It’s sooo weird! And they have weird names, too. Like Frostbyte and Domino.” Toby: “Oh, and Destructa X! What kind of name is that? It’s so weird!” Weird, indeed. Meanwhile, I made a mental note to 1) teach them a lesson on varying their words, and 2) take a closer look at their YouTube viewing histories.
- Girls at school. Speaking of Taylor Swift, we shifted slightly into a quick conversation about how all the girls at school love Taylor Swift. Toby: “Yeah, so-and-so went to the concert and came to school the next day wearing a Taylor Swift t-shirt.” Matthew: “Oh, yeah, some girls in my class did, too.” Toby: “Mommy, did you know some girls wanted to use a Taylor Swift song for the talent show but weren’t allowed?” Then he added, “But it didn’t make sense because this one girl wore one of those Hawaiian outfits―Mommy, you know the ones with the coconuts and the grass skirts?―and that was okay. I mean, isn’t that inappropriate to wear?” Oh boy.
- Dinosaurs. Ever since we watched Jurassic World, Matthew has renewed his passion in dinosaurs, which means that I can’t go a day without being asked who I think would win―T-Rex or Indominus Rex? Our car ride was no exception. This time, though, Matthew also asked Toby and me, “If you could have a dinosaur as a pet, which one would you choose?” Toby answered “Triceratops” almost immediately. “I could ride on his head where his horns are,” he clarified. Me: Brachiosaurus. “They seem so gentle,” I explained. Matthew: “Velociraptor! I would tame them like in the movie.”
- Animals. Surprisingly, there were no superhero-related questions on this particular car ride with questions like “Who do you like better? Captain American or Iron man?” or “Who do you think you’re more like, in terms of personality―The Flash or Batman?” (My answers, BTW, are Captain American and The Flash.) Instead, they asked about animal powers. Matthew: “If you could add any animal part to your body, what would it be?” Toby: “Well, that’s weird, like I would just have a random tail or something?” Matthew: “Well, no, you could hide it if you wanted, but you would have that power or ability.” He went on to explain, “I would choose a hawk eye. Then I could see things that were really far away. Mommy, did you know that hawks can see things that are a mile away?” Toby picked “Cheetah legs,” but clarified again, “But only the ability to run fast, not the legs themselves.” When I said I would want wings so I could fly (no doubt being stuck in traffic had something to do with my choice), both Matthew and Toby jumped in to ask “What kind of wings? A hawk? An eagle? Teradactyl?”
Our car talk may not have been of the particular deep and personal variety, but it did make me think about how my colleague was right. There is something about being in a car together. Tidbits of sharing here and there that wouldn’t necessarily happen in other contexts. Had we gone home immediately that day, we would have spent those 45 minutes doing separate things: I would be reading a book or on my computer and the each of the boys would be playing with their toys or the iPad (perhaps watching Taylor Swift videos? I should probably pay more attention).
Being stuck in traffic isn’t so bad.