I remember when my kids were little. Occasionally, they would get fussy, and the only hope for getting them to sleep was a nice, slow drive in a warm minivan with some peaceful, classical music playing.
Now they’re old enough to be bored in the backseat. One of them asks 400 questions per hour, and the other two do dreadful, vicious, horrible things such as...wait for it...looking at one another.
The truth is, children feel relatively safe in cars. They know that your disciplinary options decrease as the distance from your front door increases. They may have a vague awareness that consequences await them upon arrival, but there are several factors that keep this from being much of a deterrent.
For example, they know that discipline lies, quite literally, at some point down the road. The longer the journey, the longer you have to cool down and forget about how badly they behaved. They also know that there will be witnesses once you get where you’re going. They figure you’re not going to really throw down in front of those other law-abiding citizens.
So, how do you keep the vehicle running smoothly -- especially with all the trips to the mall and the store and the swim party and soccer practice and grandma’s house and summer camp and...whew! I’m out of breath just thinking of it all!
To begin with you might consider keeping a small bag of books, toys and games in the car to occupy time. Play the alphabet game by trying to find each letter on signs as you drive by. The winner gets to drive.
How about some age-appropriate trivia? Name three candy bars that begin with the letter “M”. Which color is the most common color for other cars? How far away do you think that bridge is?
Of course, you can’t head off every bit of trouble, so I’ve got four things for you to keep in mind. Most are based on a single principle, which is this: When you can’t discipline, discipline when you can. In other words, if you are unable to immediately respond to car trouble, fix the trouble when you do stop.
One: When chauffeuring your kids around, tell them before you leave what level of peace you want en route. Also, tell them that you will turn the car around if you don’t get it. Also, mean it when you say it. Actually follow through if you must. You may want to just call it a day after that, or you may call for a “do-over” and try again. That’s your call. Transportation is a privilege not a right. Privileges are earned in our house through responsible behavior.
Two: “If you don’t stop that this instant, I will pull this car over” has been used so many times it’s lost some of its power, which is a shame because it’s a very helpful option. If you can find a safe place, pull over and sit for a minute. It won’t take long for them to realize that this is eating into valuable pool or shopping or party time. Require a few minutes of peace and quiet before moving on. You can pull over as many times as you like -- or you can decide to only pull over once and head for home if there’s a second offense.
Three: Timeout in the car at the destination. If you endure 13 minutes of chaos en route, force them to sit in the car for 13 minutes once they arrive. Just sitting in the car, watching their friends skate and have fun, thinking of how they could be out there, too.
Four: At the start of each trip, the kids each get, say, four tickets. Every infraction costs them a ticket. Each lost ticket leads to some consequence: a 10-minute timeout, a 200-word essay or a $5.00 fine. You could also reverse this one and hand out tickets for infractions -- you know, like the police do. Consequences are served upon arrival, or later at home.
The key to avoiding car trouble is to abandon the idea that discipline must be immediate to be effective. That may be the ideal situation for toddlers and preschoolers, but discipline quickly becomes logistically more complicated as they get older. That’s why it’s always better to do something, even if it’s later or somewhere else, than to do nothing just because it happened 26 miles ago.
If all else fails, find your favorite radio station, blast the volume and sing as loudly as you can! Your kids will collapse into a catatonic state, but they’ll snap out of it as soon as they can safely escape from the car and tell their friends how weird you are!