The car is where the best stories have a chance to run and really stretch out their legs freely. It’s where sarcasm bursts up out of nowhere and cracks everyone up. It’s where kids break into tears after a horrible day at school. It’s where questions are posed, debates develop, and problems get solved. The car is the setting of some of our very best moments in life.
It’s why Jerry Seinfeld’s website Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is so good. Each episode begins with Jerry picking up another comedian and driving around in a car. It’s a little awkward at first, but very quickly the conversation gets cookin’. There’s something about riding with someone in a car that fosters conversation.
Sure, you can talk anywhere, and yes, the dinner table is also an ideal location for communication. But the car has special advantages for parents to talk to and listen to their kids.
- In the car, you have each other as a captive audience, which sounds terrible, but it’s terrific when one of you needs to say something that maybe the other isn’t dying to hear. In many cases, it’s the teen who needs to get something off his chest, and he can’t get mom or dad to hear him anywhere else. The car becomes the appointment – a set time and place without interruption.
- It’s a side-by-side orientation, which may not seem important, but it is, especially for boys who are usually uncomfortable with face-to-face discussions. In general, side-by-side communication is less confrontational and far more comfortable. Eye contact is minimized, and the whole thing just feels more natural. It’s a relatively safe place. You can talk about a big deal without it feeling like such a big deal.
- It’s a limited time slot. This is important for both sides. The speaker needs to know that he or she has a limited time to get to the point, and the listener knows that this won’t go on forever. In most cases, a car ride will be 10-15 minutes, which is plenty of time, but it’s not too much. And if things get awkward or miserable, there is relief coming soon. That pressure relief valve exists, which is helpful for the whole conversation.
- The car is private. Think about it. The car is sound-proof, and nobody is going to walk in or walk by on your conversation. It’s a conversation chamber.
- Car talks are often part of a routine. In many cases, you are in the car regularly with the same people. It’s a tradition. You could even say it’s a social club of sorts. The same people get together daily or weekly in the same place for the same amount of time. And talking becomes the norm. The pattern is comforting. You know that you can botch it one time, and it’s ok. You’ll have plenty of chances to fix it and move on.
Not every car ride will be a good one. Not every question will work. So, it’s ok, if it’s a bad time for it. You don’t need to talk every time. Honestly, it’s a crapshoot. Sometimes, you will fail to connect, and other times you will hit it big. You just have to try, and be happy when it goes well.
First, turn off the radio and any other distracting devices. You might need to ask the kids to put down their mobile devices, but don’t make a big deal of it, unless they are totally ignoring you. Remember, you are trying to catch flies with honey, not hammers.
Next, you need a good question and a good attitude.
Here are a few questions to try, in no particular order.
- How was your day? What was the best part? What was the worst?
- What was something funny that happened today?
- What are you looking forward to today/tonight/this weekend/next week?
- Who are you sitting with at lunch at school? Who are you buddies this week?
- How is ______________________ going? (sport, class, lessons, hobby…)
- What’s on your mind this morning?
- Tell me about one of your teachers?
- What’s up in your world today? Tell me something, anything.
- If you could have a free day to be with a friend (or three), $100 to spend, and a driver, what would you do?
- Have you ever laughed so hard you peed yourself, cried, choked, or lost some other bodily function, like standing or breathing?
- What’s the most disgusting thing you have ever seen? smelled? tasted?
- Do you have any recurring nightmares?
- What are some of your biggest fears?
- Who is the funniest kid you know?
- If you could punch someone in the gut really hard, who would it be and why does he deserve it?
- Would you rather have a one-week vacation to anywhere in the world or $1,000 dollars? What would you do with either?
- If you could magically help someone in your life with a big problem, what would you do?
- What is your dream job?
- What is a job that you think you would be really good at?
- Who is the coolest kid you know, and what makes him or her cool?
- Who is the kind of adult you want to be when you grow up?
- What are a few of your favorite things (think of The Sound of Music)?
- What is your earliest memory?
- What is the worst parenting move I have ever made? The best?
- Aren’t you glad that I care enough about you to ask you questions all the time?
Remember, your goal is to get them to talk about something that they want or need to talk about. It’s not about lecturing them. It’s not about manipulating them into talking about what you want to talk about. It’s about just getting them to talk. Listen first. Then converse.