Get Kids to Talk: The Modern Equivalent of Trapping Them in the Car

Parenting fact: one-on-one time with kids is where all of the good dialogue happens.

When I was in high school, my dad was well aware of this fact. I think that’s why he’d bribe me with rides to school in his 1978 Cadillac DeVille (or “the boat” as we called it in the family). Even today I can still hear the “thunk” of the automatic door locks engaging as dad backed this giant, baby-blue, swank sedan out of the driveway.

That “thunk” nearly always triggered teenage-cheek-flush and upper-lip-sweat as I realized I was trapped in the car with dad. On the surface it was a luxury ride, but in reality I was merely being held for uninterrupted questioning.

My 15-year-old brain swirled with thoughts of outsmarting him:

“Crap, it’s just dad and me, no one else to distract him or run interference, he can talk about anything he wants. I can’t escape, I have to answer his questions. Maybe if I just look out the window and feign boredom, he won’t try to talk to me.”

But my sweaty, flushed flight response of my lizard brain knew better.

He always asked questions. So many questions. And I eventually had to answer.

Who could blame dad for wanting to know what was going on. The man had five daughters! Including three teenage girls at one time! Imagine the stress that caused (yes, I’ve heard ALL the dad-with-shotgun jokes). He had to figure out some way to get his daughters to talk. And trapping us in the car was his way.

To say he had a lot on his mind is a complete understatement. I still remember looking over from my front-seat-passenger position and watching him clench and un-clench his jaw. Bottled up stress plus no time to himself, much less time to spend with each of his daughters one-on-one, caused a teeth grinding habit that endured long after his kids left home.

Honestly that whole automotive Q&A wasn’t as bad as the teenager in me remembered. Those car rides enabled dad and me to catch up. In the car, we talked. Free from stressful job distractions or interruptions from one of my four sisters or my mom, dad/daughter car time became rare father-daughter time.

Those sometimes stressful car rides carried a silver lining: The locked doors, too-cold AC and hum of the tires meant I had his full attention as much as he had mine. I still get warm fuzzies remembering that time spent riding solo in the car with dad. Because even with the lip-sweat and fear, I knew, even then, that time with him was precious.

Parents Agree about the Importance of Connecting with Kids

This article,  10 Ideas for Connecting with Your Kids, is six years old now, but the lessons are still valid. Yes! It’s important to make time with your kids, read to them and play with them. And make sure you check out number 7: Talk to Them in the Car. Though for the purposes of this blog you should read that asTalk to Them on a Bike Ride.

And the bike ride conversation works all the better because it’s easy to focus. No devices, no distractions. From the Happiness Project, an article about unplugging: Find a Way to Unplug from Technology, or, How to Escape the Cubicle in Your Pocket.

So go ahead and do the amended number 7, and leave your phone at home too. I would add one small note to this piece, take your kid for a walk/bike ride and leave your phone at home.

Because we have so many distractions today, parents must insist on some sort of balance with regards to family simplicity.

Looking for distraction-free time with my kids

There’s one glaring difference between childhood of the 1970’s, 1980’s and even the early 1990’s vs today: Technology.

Back in the pre-internet, pre-mobile device era parents didn’t have to compete with the extra mobile appendages. Kids, parents, we all seem to have them.

I often remind my kids about my device-free childhood (when I was young, our phones had cords! And if you talked on them too long you’d get all tangled up!). Good or bad, their world is light years away from the one in which I was raised. The kids laugh when Tim and I tell them that we graduated from college pre-internet and pre-cellphone! How did we possibly learn anything? You mean you only had books? Weird!

In the mid-eighties, my dad was one of the first parents with a “car phone” — basically a home-phone sized handset wired to a giant box in the trunk of the car. But he pretty much never used it. Aside from the occasional Willie Nelson on the 8-track, the car ride was all about focus.

Not true in 2013. Today, parents battle even more distractions than my dad faced. We can’t simply get kids in the car, lock the doors and drive off to guarantee parent/child conversation.  Parents hoping to use the “trap kids in the car” tactic now must compete with smartphones, in-car video monitors, hand-held game consoles, music players and soon, Google glasses.

I learned a lot from my dad about raising kids including the importance of talking with them. Since I have two kids, not five, one-on-one time with mine isn’t as scarce as it was for my dad. But I have to compete with devices. So I think we might be even. Non-rushed, distraction-free conversation with my kids is something cherished.

Now I look for opportunities to trap each of my kids alone.

On Bikes and on Foot, Time with Kids unplugged


Since my kids mostly ride bikes or walk places, my version of ‘trapping them in the car’ is usually dragging them on bike rides or walks. Our family rule: no devices allowed on these outings! (Tim sometimes gets busted for this)

When I crave alone time or connection with one of my kids, I  invite force one of them to join me on a walk or bike ride to the store.

The best part about one-on-one talks on bikes vs. cars (oh no, thunk, hot sweat!) is they aren’t actually trapped like they would be in a car. If my kids don’t like where a conversation is headed, they don’t have to fantasize about breaking the window and diving out at a stop light; They merely stomp on the pedals and take off.

And after so many hours in the saddle, these kids can sprint!

I’m happy to report that my kids, skinny little legs and all, can pump out some power! And they’ve also learned something from the many hours spent watching streaming Tour de France video footage with their dad, surprise attacks work best.

Catch mom off guard, and then take off. Get her to look at a cute puppy in a window or point out some pretty flowers and before she realizes what happened, you can totally ride away from her. When my kids get mad, or annoyed with my incessant questions, that’s precisely what they do. Sprint away and leave me in their dust.

And each time this happens, I think of my dad and our time in the car. He was lucky, I was trapped. My kids aren’t trapped. But every time my kids ride away from me, I don’t get mad, in fact I usually crack a smile. Way to go, kid. Use your freedom to your advantage!

Because even though both kids can get me with the surprise attack, I still have an advantage. My legs have endured years of endurance training. I always catch up. Smile. And start talking again.

They Learn from these Rides Too

So I guess there’s really a few reasons to ride/walk with kids:

  • distraction-free time with kids
  • one-on-one conversation
  • and power

Maybe power isn’t the best term for it, but I don’t know what else to call it. With every pedal stroke, my kids learn something new. Even if they aren’t aware of these lessons now, experience riding bikes teaches them about freedom. And choices. And discipline. And Joy. On a bike or on foot, they have complete control over their decisions, actions and consequences. Power indeed.

And it’s clear those lessons are sinking in at our house. If you asked either one of my kids to give you one of my favorite parenting lesson/phrases, they would answer with an eye roll ” You aren’t a victim” (followed closely by “put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher”).

And they demonstrate their comprehension of not being a victim on these rides. When I watch from the bottom of a hill as my kid gets mad at my line of questioning and starts sprinting, often reaching the top of the hill long before I’m even out of the saddle, I know at least some of those lessons are sinking in. No, I’m not a victim, mom, you’re bugging me and I just totally crushed you on that hill!

Regardless of little hiccups along the way, I still love these rides. And I think my kids do too.

Only time will tell if they feel the same way about rides with me as I feel about car rides with my dad. We’ll have to wait another thirty years for that story to unfold.

Five ways to get kids to take a walk/ride with you

So what’s the secret to getting kids to unplug and go for a ride or walk with you?

1) Do I have to? That part is easy, instead of asking if they want to go, just insist. Yes, you do have to come with me. Put down the book, walk away from the video game, leave your phone on the charger, get your coat and meet me at the front door. 

2) What’s in it for me, mom? Even though I rarely have to force them to come along on a ride or walk, I’m not above coercion. And even though Daniel Pink says carrots and sticks don’t work, sometimes they do. All I have to do is tell the kids it’s “Yes Day” (which means you ask for something at the store and mom will probably say “Yes”) and they’ll usually agree to come along. If you come you can choose tonight’s dessert. Or you can pick something for your lunch tomorrow.

3) Timing is everything. Parents can usually tell if their kid is in the right mood to go along on a ride or a walk. Forcing them to go when they are having a bad day does no good at all. Pick a day when they are already willing to talk and are generally happy (this is sometimes tricky with teens and pre-teens because you could be waiting for months). Even so, parents learn to read our kids moods pretty quickly.

4) Make it Fun Who wants to ride or walk with naggy-downer mom. Leave your bad mojo at home and take the walk or ride as an opportunity to start over. Joke, have fun and laugh. But don’t laugh too loud, people might hear you and that’s embarrassing!

5) Shut your mouth and listen. Remember why you wanted to go on a ride/walk with your kid? You wanted to catch up and hear what’s going on in their life. So let them talk. Listen to all of their stories. Even if they go on and on about black holes or rare fossils or some other subject you know nothing about. Listen to what your kid has to say and you’ll probably learn something new.

6) Tell us your tips in the comments. Ok, that’s not really one of the tips, but we would appreciate if you’d share your experiences. Do you trap your kids on bikes? What tactics do you use to get kids to talk?

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

– Anne

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