Finding Family Time in the Car

When schedules get in the way of dinner, bond with your kids in transit. 

Not until I had my own kids did I realize what a feat my parents pulled off in getting me and my six siblings around the dinner table. Every night all nine of us sat, laughed, bickered and questioned the hell out of our parents. Even though I have only three children, I saw early on that that beloved ritual was never going to make it into our daily lives—my kids’ schedules were just too packed and disparate.

My work-around—my way for us to actually engage as a family—I discovered one day in bumper-to-bumper L.A. traffic. At the time, my kids were young enough not to complain about all the time spent in the car. As we inched toward some faraway baseball field, the three of them talked about their days, laughed, bickered—and invited me in on all of  it. I was transported back to my childhood dinner table. Thanks to reliably insane traffic, I had finally found it: a way for us to hang out together for an hour every day!

When the kids got old enough for phones, I feared it might be the end of the ritual, so I went on the offensive. My daughter—the oldest—got her phone first. When I reminded her that, technically, the whole point of  her having a phone was to contact me, so she didn’t really need it on our drive, she balked. But I stayed firm, and she surrendered, passing me the phone. A year later my middle kid got his phone, and when he balked, all it took was a particular look from his sister for him to follow. When my third finally got his, he simply got in the car and handed it to me. And so it was-—over the years and miles, in the lull of traffic—that I learned my middle son had no desire to go to college, my daughter confessed to having gotten drunk for the first time, and my 14-year-old shared his account of falling in love.

Of course, I worried that this tradition would go up in smoke once they started driving themselves, but again they surprised me: Not long after my daughter got her license, she called me from the car asking me to come to the driveway. She’d just gotten home from school, and I figured she needed help bringing something inside. But when I got outside, she gestured for me to get in the passenger seat. As soon as I did, she proceeded to download the longest teenage-drama epic I’d ever heard. 

A full hour later, after we got out of the car, I asked her, “Was there any reason you couldn’t have told me that story inside, on the couch?” She looked at me as though I’d lost my mind and said, “Mom, that was a total car story! I could never have told you that inside.” 

As my kids got older and I couldn’t find them in the house, I learned to look out to the driveway. Most of the time, there they’d be, talking to each other in the car. I know it’s a little nutty. But times change. Progress, technology and our growing obsession with being the busiest people on the planet have all influenced our habits. The one thing you want to figure out—or stumble upon, as I did—is how to spend time, in any shape or form, with your family and not feel guilty if it’s not the expected dinner table or game night. Regardless of where you find the time or how you fit it in, it will matter, because it’s the glue that bonds us and makes the memories we carry for the
rest of our lives. Now, if you need me, I’ll be out in the car with my kids.