Four for the Road

By Elisabeth de Mariaffi
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family in a carWhen I mention to other parents that we are shopping for that-next-step of family-hood, the minivan, I invariably get the same response: “So, you’re going for the DVD?”

The short answer is no. We are not looking for a backseat DVD option now offered by most, if not all, minivan manufacturers. And not just because of the cost differential, either. Although I’ll admit my husband and I did allow ourselves a few dreamy, wistful moments of consideration (ooh, think of the quiet!), we never really gave it a chance. There just has to be media-free space in our lives.

We’re planning a family road trip down to Kansas City in only a few short weeks – that translates to about 3 days of driving, 6 hours a day, from our home in Ontario, Canada. Not unambitious, with a 3½-old year old and a 6 year old in the back seat. Despite the length of the journey, it’s a trip that all four of us are looking forward to. Gone are the days of car-hating babies (the guilt that we felt upon discovering, during an innocent merry-go-round ride with our then-9-month old son, that he was hopelessly motion sick! No wonder car rides of more than 5 minutes had been so desperate for him as an infant.) Now that we’re past, at least for the time being, the days of planned nursing stops (and lots of them), we feel pretty free. We consider our children to be both public-schooled and home-schooled: they have the opportunity for learning all the time, and so we have no compunctions about pulling them out of school for two weeks to drive across the border and into a different environment.

While it’s true that they do play some games we’d rather they didn’t – like “Stop kicking, you’re making Daddy crash the car!” – for the most part we are amazed at their ingenuity, curiosity and imaginative play. We play I Spy and Rock, Paper, Scissors; we count cars of the same colour; watch for deer; sing songs and listen to stories on tape. We listen as our 6 year old tells her brother stories she has made up or calls out of her memory-library of favourites. We listen as they tell us their observations, or stories of their own: favourite games at nursery school, something funny our kindergartner’s best friend said, and lots of knock-knock jokes and yes, poo-poo jokes. She is 6, after all. When they sleep we take time for quiet grown-up talk – indeed, there was a time when we’d put toddler and baby in the car for that purpose alone, a nap for them and an opportunity for the two of us to connect, conversation-starved parents that we were.

So far, we’ve managed to let technology into our lives without building our lives around it – our one television set banished to the basement, media is never a focus during meals or other living time – we have to choose it. For our children, we try to choose advertising-free programming, although we all love a few crazy cartoons. With a poet mama and a cartoonist daddy, our children know they are just as able to create characters as anyone else, and frequently make their own books and comics.

Car time can be quiet time, which has its own benefits. I noticed early on that our son, a non-stop power-battery motion-machine, became aware of when he needed quiet focus time. By the time he was two, I would notice his absence, while doing dishes, or folding laundry, and peek into his room to find him curled against his enormous stuffed hippo, solemnly turning the pages of a book. I’ve been amazed at the maturity implicated in these self-imposed time-outs, and am also aware of the importance of quiet time to his emotional well-being: he takes the time to re-group and then heads back into loopy, noisy play, more able to deal with himself and others. There is something important about the ability to look out the car window, even for 2 or 3 minutes, and experience that quiet, personal time.

Many families I know have “car stories,” memories that are lasting. My husband recalls with great fondness the bedtime drives his father orchestrated along the Toronto lakeshore, in hopes of settling two wound-up pre-school boys. Although he could not have been much more than a toddler when these drives were a regular occurrence, the memory of the sound of the car, the looming billboards and that quiet time with only his brother and a father who would soon after leave the family, remains one of the strongest and most positive of his early childhood. A friend remembers how after the birth of her third child she worried that her oldest, a boy then 5 years old, seemed isolated and uninterested in the baby, until she spied him in her rear-view mirror, gently and lovingly stroking the baby’s small cheek. The car can sometimes give us the opportunity to be alone, together.

When we all pile into the car, we are experiencing something important: each other. The close quarters of a car interior don’t have to be a whine zone: in fact, I think the dynamic is more similar to the family dining table than anything else. Car trips can be a unique opportunity, if we choose to take it, to reacquaint ourselves and to explore our thoughts openly, amid the comfort of family. Maybe the stress some families feel in the car is actually created by our reliance on media to “fill up” other quiet moments. If we allow media into the car with us, we are simply allowing them another opportunity to erode our time together, and we are agreeing that their voice is more important than any of ours. So if the truth is that it is more work to help two children entertain themselves than it would be to press a button, so be it. This truth only underlines the same discovery I’ve been making since my first child was a day old: maybe easy isn’t the point. Maybe the point is to discover something in ourselves that we didn’t know was there before, and as our children grow, to help them discover what is inside them. It may take more effort, time, or planning to make a car trip a success, but if all we’ve done is given them the ability to enjoy a few quiet moments of reverie as they look out the window, we’ve given them building blocks to inner stability and self-reliance that will serve them well, their whole lives long.

Elisabeth de Mariaffi is a mother and freelance writer, poet, cook and gardener living in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

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