You don’t hear much positive press about driving or cars today, unless they’re edgy cars with alternative fuel sources and gaudy mileage. Walking, biking, and busing are more pro-social modes of transport, and enjoy rave reviews.
With good reason, certainly. We’re concerned about climate change, ungainly carbon footprints, obesity (somewhat a function of car dependency), oil dependency, and the price of gas.
Cars are linked to a culture of waste and sloth. A dear friend of mine once lectured that life in the 1950s was about driving your huge, gas-guzzling car down the highway, and tossing your garbage from your McDonald’s dinner out the window while you did it.
Still, there is one good thing about a car for which I’ve not found an exact replacement: It seems to make conversation between parent and child so much easier, and more fruitful.
Invariably, I find that my 10 year old tells me more from the back seat of my car, just as we’re driving to and from school, or on longer, meandering car trips. Even short drives in the daily routine seem to stimulate more disclosure of feelings and information than I’d otherwise glean.
The typical, non-car dialogue might go like this:
“How was school?”
“What did you today?”
“How was lunch?”
And so on.
It’s nice that it’s all “good,” but… a parent craves more.
That same conversation on the stimulant of the car would include stories of what the band teacher said before recess, about how one boy is interacting with another boy in the class, about an alleged “teacher’s pet” in another class, and even feelings. I seem to ask better questions, or be wiser in my responses; my son seems to volunteer more.
I’m not sure why this is so, that the car is a conversational steroid.
Maybe it’s just because of habit. Maybe it’s the soothing, hypnotic motion, assuming that you’re not mired in nerve-jangling traffic jams.
Maybe it’s because when we’re in transit, even just between home and school, we’re in between worlds, and that naturally feels somewhat liberating, to be in spaces that aren’t bound by the habits of our home, school or work life. That might inspire conversational creativity and skill.
But I think it’s more than that, because I’ve noticed that conversations on the equally transitional space of buses or planes don’t yield that same car magic.
Buses and planes are public in a way that the car isn’t. One of the unique social qualities of a car is that it’s a place between the private and the public, or a hybrid of both. We’re in a car, out in public, but the car itself is a private space.
In this sense the car reminds me of a confessional, or a doctor’s office, which achieve the samefeat of eliciting and shielding private conversation in a public space.
The car’s design also works a bit like a confessional.
Younger children sit in the back seat, removed from the parent-confessor by the barrier of a seat, and a head rest. A certain intimacy, with distance, is ensured by logistics and geometry. The driver-parent is limited in the number of embarrassing visual or parental gestures that they can make. They can’t hug awkwardly.
Perhaps most importantly, potentially deterring eye contact or intensity is limited by the act of driving. The parent-confessor must focus ahead, on the road, and not the child, who might otherwise be embarrassed to say things that he’ll now volunteer, with the comforting feeling that he’s saying them to a person who is there, but not entirely present, or engaged face-to-face. Or, like an analyst, the parent-driver is a “blank screen” to the child in the back seat, both there, and receptive, but not engaged in the same way that they would be in non-car space, and talk.
In transit between the habitats of our lives—home, school, the office—the design of the car creates an intimate distance, in a public-private space. The conversation flows.
It’s not much to recommend the car. We still have high gas prices and climate change to worry about. But it’s one thing I’ll miss when we finally embrace the alternatives.