There’s something about the car that leads to great conversations. Maybe it’s the distraction of the other cars whizzing by, or the horns blasting intermittently. Perhaps it’s the music filling the empty space with sound. Or could it be that we don’t actually have to make eye contact to communicate? After all, who wants a stiff neck from turning in your seat to look at the other person? Whatever it is, I’ve found it’s the best place for bringing up just about any topic.
I remember as a teenager driving with my mom and feeling an ease in conversation. I felt a little less inhibited, more open to discussion. I didn’t mind answering awkward questions or actually initiating a conversation (gasp!). Easy banter would occur as I gazed out the window. I also had a safe distance from any possible hugging…which is the last thing I wanted to risk when talking to my mother. I felt confident knowing we could talk, and then time was up when we reached our destination. It didn’t have to end in a unnatural “thanks for talking,” or an awkward silence. We would simply get out of the car and resume our life without skipping a beat. Or, if things got weird, I could turn up the radio and not feel pressure to keep talking. I’m sure she knew this and used it to her advantage. Maybe I did too, and I enjoyed the comfort of our car-talks.
Today I have my own children who love to talk in the car. Gone are the relaxing car rides where my husband and I talk about all our hopes and dreams (I think there was a time this happened?). All five of my children talk a lot. Even the baby, in her own way. When we get one child alone in the car, it’s like an avalanche of every word, story, experience, and thought they’ve ever had. I love it. It’s the freedom of the car! They are safe to talk without distraction. They know I can’t scoop them up and hug them. They know I’m there and I can’t go to the other room to grab a crying toddler. They have my attention. I’ve heard about crazy dreams or nightmares, interactions with friends, “what I want to be when I grow up” plans, I’m an expert on many odd subjects they find fascinating but mostly I’ve just heard them. And they feel heard.
My oldest son is 11 and is entering into a season where he doesn’t really want to pour out his heart to his mom (or his dad, to be fair). He’s actually always been more introverted and tends to keep things bottled inside. I treasure our car conversations. He opens up. He tells me who his friends are. He tears up when he’s hurt (as he gazes out the window). He tells me he’s disappointed in his piano recital piece (and then turns up the radio). He tells me about his anger when he feels he was treated unjustly (and I can’t hug him like crazy, I only can reach to touch his shoulder).
I love it all.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’m still learning how to parent and love these kids. All I know is that I need to find every opportunity to connect with them and pursue their hearts. Car conversations just happen to be one way that is pretty easy and successful.
Here are some tips that have helped me, and that I try to follow:
- Keep the radio off or super low.
- Do not talk on the phone.
- Ask open ended questions (“What happened in art class today?” Instead of “How was art class?”)
- Acknowledge what they say (repeating some of their story or identifying with their emotions shows you’re really listening and not on autopilot saying “wow” “cool” or “sounds fun buddy”)
- Don’t react. (No gasping, a shocked “what?!” or “Oh no!!!” Let them process their emotions without you inserting yours)
- Empathize (even if it’s ridiculous…)
- Instead of giving advice or your opinion ask, “Do you want to know what I’d do?” or “would you like to hear my take on it?” And (here’s the tricky part!) be OK when they say “no”
- Joke with them! Be silly!
- Let them break the rules…sometimes. (Get a milkshake before dinner, let them say “butt” or “fart” without scolding them)
- Be available. Be intentional. None of this can happen unless you take that kid on a drive, an errand, anywhere…alone. Have those drives so he can have a safe place to talk and unload on you.