February 17, 2010

Kick the Cell Phone to the Curb and Chat with the Kids Instead

by Jeanne Sager

States across the country are telling drivers to drop the cell phone while you drive for safety's sake, but how about kicking the phone out of the car completely?

Oprah herself has started a campaign to make American cars "no phone zones," even making her employees sign a pledge to that effect. Radar Online reports Oprah staffers are bristling at the intrusion, but the public pledge is striking a nerve with parents for reasons that might surprise you. They say it's not about safety at all -- it's about making the car a place to bond with their kids.

"You can be just as much distracted and a danger with your kids in the back seat than any cell phone," says David Carey, a father of two boys from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But Carey tries to limit phone usage so he can chat with sons Eamon, 6, and Declan, 2.

Spending time inside the car discussing the bulldozers on the roadside offers him the unique chance to talk to both of his kids at once rather than dealing one-on-one with each child. "Maybe this group bonding is only the case because they are physically tethered to one spot and forced," he says with a laugh, "But regardless it's a good thing!"

The car is a unique place for American families, largely because it provides parents with a captive audience. The kids are literally locked (well, seatbelted) in one place. And provided you've made your car phone-, movie- and video-game-free, they are away from the digital media that recent reports show are keeping kids occupied for seven and a half hours a day. 

It could be your one chance during the day to ask your kids questions about their day and get an answer. Considering American mothers spend an average of 405 hours a year in the car (that's 17 days), don't let it get away. 

What to Talk About

Start with a chat about their day and try to keep things on neutral ground at least at the beginning of the ride. Setting aside time to chat on the drive home at night can help your kids re-adjust to home life after a day in school or daycare, while a pep talk on the morning drive can be the key to a good day. Queens, N.Y., mom Andrea Santoro's two boys spend nine hours away from home, so she starts talking about the comforts of home when Randy, 2, and Austin, 4, climb into the car for the 20-minute drive home.

"I try to get them to pin down a meal they'd like for dinner, considering they are kind of hungry. I also feel like talking about getting into comfy clothes and eating together at the table will mentally bring them home before they actually get there," Santoro explains.

Start with open-ended questions. If they can answer "yes" or "no," they will, so opt for something that requires them to go into detail such as, "Who did you eat lunch with today?" 

The phone-free car is also a safe middle ground for parents during the difficult teen years. With your eyes focused on the road rather than their face, you can broach some of the difficult topics in a more informal manner. 

Save discussions where you feel you need to read their face for a setting outside the car. But there's no reason you can't introduce the sex talk or a general discussion on drugs and alcohol in the car just to get the ball rolling. 

The lack of eye contact allows you to connect with your kids without making them feel preached to. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy,  the "birds and the bees" talk is more successful when parents are willing to ask questions of their children and listen to the answers. Set at ease in the car, your kids will likely be more forthcoming about things they might have a hard time saying face to face. 

That easiness will translate into the hard questions lobbed back at you, so be prepared to answer. But remember the car offers you one big advantage - as one mom told Cozi, her four-year-old couldn't see her red face when he asked "Do you and Daddy like sex?" Asking not to be named, she admits knowing her son only saw the back of her head made it easier to compose herself before she answered.

And don't worry if your child hasn't hurled one of the hard ones at you yet. It isn't only the deep talks you have in the comfort of the car that will make a difference in your child's development.

"As parents have children captive in the car, this is an ideal place to connect with your children via conversation, music and sharing laughter," says child development expert Maureen Healy, author of 365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids. Healy refers to group singing and conversations that crop up spontaneously about a sight along the way as the "little moments" that foster "big connections between parent and child."

"Such healthy bonding encourages a child to feel confident, safe and valuable in this world," she adds.

Car-Friendly Activities

Using signs, nature and buildings as their classroom, parents of younger kids who have turned the phone off are finding car trips with their kids are as much an educational opportunity as a means to get to the grocery store and back. 

Karen Reilly of upstate New York describes the street signs to son Will, 3, and daughter Megan, 1, telling the kids what they mean. It can easily launch into a discussion on shapes and color, turning an errand run into a pre-school on wheels. "Will is a typical boy who rarely slows down, so car rides tend to allow him to focus more on our discussions, and I love to take those opportunities to chat with him," Reilly says.

If you're plugged into your phone, you miss out on discovering what piques your kids' interest while you're driving. Turning it off, you can introduce younger kids to a game of I Spy to engage them with the scenery while testing their knowledge of colors and vocabulary. For older kids, license plate bingo can be used to practice recognition of numbers or develop their social studies know how.

Fill the backseat with books, and allow your early reader to practice reading out loud to you - or their siblings. Pack Brain Quest cards for your elementary schooler to quiz you on trivia or make a playlist of their favorite tunes to sing together for some old-fashioned stress relief. 

And don't knock the car ride as a way to rediscover how much you love your kids.

"Sometimes I make up excuses to go for a ride just to kill some time and for a change in scenery," says Reilly. "It is a nice change of pace when the kids are climbing the walls and the weather is bitter cold and it is too frigid to even make the run from the parking lot into the market!"

Get your family organized and on the same page with Cozi, the free online family organizer.

Jeanne Sager is a mom to Jillian and writer from upstate New York. She's strung words together for Babble.com, Kiwi Magazine and AOL's Holidash, and she shares her award-winning weekly newspaper column on her blog, Inside Out.

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