Young children need to move in order to learn. The car, therefore, seems designed to either lull children to sleep or constrain them to the point of tantrum. Add siblings into the mix and a ride to the store can quickly become a loathsome experience. Not to mention an exercise in infinite patience (or explosive reactions) on behalf of the parent driver.
One strategy that may help is called “wish fulfillment”: granting a wish in fantasy that you can’t grant in reality. You can try this strategy at other times during the day, but it tends to be particularly effective for avoiding car-ride traumas.
Let’s look at an example. I picked up my three-year old daughter from preschool one day and she said, “Mommy, I want some toast.” “OK, sweetie,” I replied lovingly with infinite patience. “We’ll be home in about 10 minutes and I’ll make you some toast.” Pause. “Mommy, I want some toast…..NOW.” Uh-oh. She’s moving to the unreachable zone. Of course, there are several ways this conversation could have continued.
1) “Honey-pie. I SAID I would make you some toast when we get home. Be patient!” This assumes two things: she didn’t hear me so I need to repeat my response slower and louder, and she actually has the ability to be patient. Which, as we all know, is not true for three-year olds.
2) “Sugar-pie. I don’t HAVE any toast in the car. What do you think this is? A store?” This can be interpreted in several different ways. Maybe mommy is making a joke, which really isn’t funny when I’m hungry. Or maybe mommy is being sarcastic, which I won’t really “get” until I’m a teenager. And while my daughter ponders the strange assumption I’ve made about the car literally being a store, she’s still not eating toast, so the desire for toast is increasing steadily.
3) “Well, I’m SORRY, baby, but you’ll just have to WAIT until we get home. What do you WANT from me?” We’re assuming she has the ability to be patient again. And now, we’ve asked her what she wants from us. Which she has already quite clearly explained. What are we, stupid?
And finally, my favorite frustrated parent response, usually given after the third or fourth repeated request:
4) “Look! I said I don’t have any toast! STOP asking and quit that whining!” (Sometimes followed by: “If you ask for toast again, I am NOT making you anything when we get home.”) Clearly, we are exasperated in this example. Will this sort of response have a calming influence or will it invite the battle? Right. Get ready for a fight.
Here’s what I did. I took a big breath and channeled my inner parenting educator. What advice would I give to a parent in this situation? (As a side note, it is my husband’s favorite hobby to say to me while I’m yelling at my children—“Is this what you teach the parents to do?” I usually give him a time-out at that point.)
I thought for a moment and said, “What kind? Whole wheat or sourdough?” Surprised silence from the back seat. Finally, a small voice emerges, “Sourdough.” I mime putting a piece of toast in the invisible toaster oven, conveniently located right below my rear view mirror so she can see what I’m doing. I turn the “knob” and say, “It’s cooking.” Silence. Then, “Is it done yet?” I drive a smidge faster. “Not yet,” I reply. Pause. “Is it DONE?” “Ding!” I shout. “Butter or no butter?” “Butter!” she says, excitedly. I mime spreading the butter and hand the “toast” to her in the back seat. Pause. “Mmmmm. It’s GOOD!”
When you make an effort to grant your child’s request in fantasy, especially when they know you can’t grant it in reality, they may more readily accept the limitations of the situation and play along with the game. In this way, you are validating their request, which is always a good first step when looking for ways to connect with your children. Let me know how this works (or doesn’t work) for you!