I am an Aucklander, so I live in a car. Not in the homeless sense – my genuine sympathy to those who do – but I recently did depressing calculations about how many hours of my life I have spent commuting on Auckland’s clogged roads. It is years! Not all of it was a tragic waste of time though. When commuting on my own I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks, but the best times were when I was driving with my kids.
Apart from mealtimes, car time was perhaps the easiest place to talk with the children. Yes, earbuds and gadgets can get in the way. It is very dispiriting to find you have been basically talking to yourself for a while because you did not notice that they had plugged in and tuned out. But generally it worked very well. We chatted and swapped jokes. I learned about their world of school and friends. Here’s a tip – ask them to find a radio station they like or ask them to put on their playlist. Maybe you won’t enjoy it as much as your favourite hits-of-the-90s station but you will instantly have something to talk about.
In a car, you are close to each other and private and, because you are both staring straight ahead rather than straight into their eyeballs, it is seemed to be a lot less threatening. Because of that we had our most significant sex-and-dating talks while driving. The basics of sex need to be taught by eight or nine, but by the time they are young teens they need more than just the biology – they need real coaching. They need to be equipped for the responsibilities, dangers and privileges of the stage they are about to enter into at puberty. And the car provided an ideal environment for these talks.
When my eldest son had his 11th birthday, I took him away on a trip, just the two of us. It was a trip we had been planning for quite a long time. We worked out the different things we were going to do – it was going to be great fun. But he also knew that there was going to be a serious side to the weekend as well. It was going to be a ‘preparing for adolescence’ weekend. He knew it would be special, somewhat formal, and that what he would learn was not to be shared with younger family members or other children. It wasn’t going to be the ‘where do babies come from’ talk but information that he will need now that he is growing up.
So how did it work out? It was great! We had a marvellous time hooning around Rotorua. My digestion had to work hard processing the overdose of takeaways, and my nerves got hammered on some of the thrill-rides we went on, but the biggest thrill was the time we spent in the car, listening to some CDs and talking over issues coming up. We covered all sorts of things like peer pressure, body changes, the terrible sense of inferiority that many teenagers feel, emotions, love and dating, and how values affect all these things.
I repeated the process with my younger son, and my wife took our daughter away when she turned 11. I look back on the hours in the car, chatting and listening, as some of the best times I have ever had with my kids. Did it work? Well, we made some wonderful memories, and our relationship afterwards was better than it had ever been. It set the stage for adolescence and – as far a dad is able to discern, anyway – they seem to have navigated their teenage years very well. The best thing was that our car time set a precedent – we can talk about anything, and we still do.