Drive-by Parenting: Low-Level Distraction = High Connection

Self-driving cars may require we defend opportunities for meaningful chats.

Posted Apr 24, 2018

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As the possibility of streets populated by autonomous vehicles zooms into reality, a variety of concerns over safety and ethics have emerged. Scholars across wide-ranging disciplines are raising alarms about the algorithms the vehicles use to make driving decisions.

But I'm here to raise another potential downside of these vehicles, one that has thus far seemed to go unnoticed. Self-driving cars could take away one of the few remaining opportunities in our daily lives we have to build connections with our children. Put simply, if we let it, the beginning of self-driving cars could portend the end of the vehicle as a space that fosters connections between people.

Trust me:  I know how crazy this sounds. Like many others, my very first thought when I first heard about self-driving cars was about how much more productive I could be if I didn’t have to waste precious time driving and could use it for other, more pressing, matters in my life. 

As a working mother of three children, I have honed my multitasking skills to Olympian-level proficiency. I schedule quick work calls for my morning commute, order supplies for my kids’ school projects while I’m riding the elevator up four floors to my office (thank you, Amazon), and, against all dentists’ advice, do calisthenics during my two minute electric toothbrush drill. Multitasking for efficiency is my modus operando, and I use it to its full advantage – and maybe also disadvantage.

It first struck me that filling my spare minutes, including those spent driving, with other, more “productive” tasks, could cause harm struck me when I was thinking about how my kids, unlike me, look forward to long car drives.

After one particularly long drive back from my sister’s house, my eldest, who was 8 at the time, said, “That was the best four hours of my life, Mom.” I laughed, thinking first of the heinous stop-and-go traffic that had plagued us all the way down the 101 and then smiled, realizing I actually felt similarly, as the open expanse of time with only superficial distractions had created the perfect conditions for – you guessed it – connection.

Our chatter had spanned from the silly to the serious, and all of it had made us feel more comfortable, understood, and ultimately, closer. And while “connecting” wasn’t the explicit goal of the drive, it was the end result. Indeed, in remembering the most important moments in my relationships with my kids, I now realize a disproportionately large portion of them have occurred in the car – typically when it’s just the two of us and my kids can say whatever’s on their minds. These moments arise when there is no expectation of productivity and when we have the attentional bandwidth but not the mandate to converse.

And this has been true in my life with respect to other relationships as well – the epic road trips with friends, carpooling to school in the morning, the bus rides home from high school cross-country meets. All were filled with bonding — in part because of debauchery and good music, but mostly because of the conversations that could only ever arise in this space. These conversations create the memories we want to hold onto.

Actually, psychologists have long known this simple truth — that it is in these moments of blank space, the ones unaccounted for and unclaimed by other, more “important” things we do, that the deepest reflection occurs. Uncluttered mental space allows for unique insights to develop. Being mindful, or mentally present, free from distractions, and able to be “in the now” enables individuals to feel more whole, centered, and healthy.

It’s tricky, though, because oftentimes directly asking children to talk about their feelings is the fastest route to total system shutdown. As a psychologist who works with children and teens, I have often noticed that the traditional psychotherapy space –two armchairs facing one another with nothing but nondescript artwork in view – is poorly designed for inspiring self-disclosure in children, because staring straight into another human’s face tends to heighten intimacy fears and the pressure to perform.

In my experience, the best early-therapy conversations with kids transpire when they are engaged in an activity occupying their eyes and hands yet requiring limited attention– for instance, when we are drawing or playing a relatively simple game, such as war, Uno or catch. It is in these moments that children allow the rhythm of the “activity” to distract them from their fears enough to enable them to share. Later in therapy children can often progress to the point where no distraction is needed –at this juncture, when children can look me in the eye and share their experiences, deeper change happens. 

Perhaps one reason why car-born conversations leave such profound memories is because they provide that natural type of low-level distraction without high-level mental engagement, the perfect recipe for inspiring bonding.

In my own research, I have been working on a related idea – that spending time reflecting on positive connections can enhance our relationships with people, improve our ability to take others' perspectives, and ground us in an empathic mental space that allows us to be kind.

For the past ten years I have been developing methods of helping people engage in this type of relational savoring to harness the power of relationship-focused reflection in improving interpersonal and psychological health. So far I, along with my colleagues, have primarily tested this technique with parents of young children, but we believe it can help people strengthen any type of close relationship. 

Engaging in this type of reflection is important. As animals, our brains are programmed to prioritize recognizing and addressing potential threats in the environment. When this function is in overdrive, it can result in crippling anxiety about non-existent threats.

This threat- or negativity bias is important for survival but can deprive us of some of the benefits of the positive connections we have in our lives. The goal of relational savoring is to correct the imbalance in attention so that people can linger in and boost the positive feelings they have related to special moments of connection. The data emerging from our studies so far suggest that engaging in the short-term practice of relational savoring can improve our feelings about our relationships and our well-being.

So where do autonomous vehicles come into play? 

Well, in order to have moments to savor, we have to be present during these moments of connection in the first place. If I switch to autopilot while riding in an autonomous vehicle, I will undoubtedly engage in tasks I deem the most “productive,” such as working or ticking to-dos off my list. And while this may be helpful when I’m alone in the car, it could create unintended negative consequences if applied to time spent driving with others.

Fortunately, we have a choice in the matter. Before “driving” time sneakily transitions into “time that can now be spent working or internet-browsing,” we can make the conscious decision to designate our cars, much like the therapy office, a sacred space free of technology and work.

But not a “distraction-free zone,” for this carries another risk – with too much attention focused on cultivating intimacy, we could create the kinds of environments children detest. So here’s my hope:–when an autonomous vehicle enters my driveway, I will treat travel time the way I always have, one that can only be inhabited by simple, relatively mindless tasks such as drawing, playing Uno, or folding laundry, that will promote and not squelch the conversational flow. And then we can use the time to talk about anything and everything, and create epic memories for the stories that live in our minds and not our Snapchat accounts.

I had one of these moments just a couple of weeks ago while driving home through pouring rain with my oldest child. I mentioned to her that I was about to begin a new study about relational savoring. She said, “Mom, what’s relational savoring again?” After I reminded her, she asked if I could practice it with her. We did, and there unfolded a conversation I will cherish for years to come – my eyes glued to the road, the rain rhythmically hitting the windshield, and the way her voice sounded as we happened upon this amazing conversation.


Bond, D. K. & Borelli, J. L. (2016). Maternal attachment insecurity and poorer proficiency savoring memories with their children. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication.doi:10.1177/0265407516664995

Borelli, J. L., Rasmussen, H. F., Burkhart, M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2014). Relational savoring in long distance romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 1083-1108. doi:10.1177/0265407514558960

Burkhart, M., Borelli, J. L., Rasmussen, H. F., & Sbarra, D. A. (2015). Cherish the good times: Relational savoring in parents of infants and toddlers. Personal Relationships, 22, 692-711. doi:10.1111/pere.12104