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Why I Value the Time I Spend Driving My Son to School

Our sprawling conversations help me get to know him better and bring us even closer together

Photo courtesy of Nevin Martell.

“What happens when you jump into the sky and touch a cloud?” my son asks me one morning as I am driving him to school.

After a moment’s thought, I reply, “First of all, you’re a superhero if you can do that.”

“I have a cape, Poppa,” he responds. “So I guess I’m a superhero.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “And never forget it.”

Moments like this one are why I treasure driving my son to school. It might seem like a small, silly exchange, but it made me crack a smile so wide I thought my cheeks were going to pop off. I marveled at the journey his mind took to ask that question and then arrive at the conclusion that he was a boy wonder.

We are forever having these fantastical little back and forths when he asks me a question to which there is no real answer and I try to engage him in the way I think he might be seeing the world. It can get pretty surreal. We once had a sprawling conversation about zombies–why they eat people, if they had brains, and how to kill them (he decided helicopters dangling fire cages that would burn them up would work best).

In our new family routine this year, I’m generally on drop-off and pick-up duty. It all adds up to more than two hours in the car every day, half of it with him, so we have at least five hours a week to talk during our commutes.

In the morning, we make plans for projects, like a Lego fortress we want to build or what recipes we could make with the vegetables we’ve harvested from the garden. Sometimes we just make up silly rhymes for each other to see who can be the most ridiculous. Other times I’ll quiz him: “Name three animals that have feathers,” “Tell me four creatures that live in the forest,” “What are five foods that are green?”

On the ride home, I try to cover the basics, like what happened at school and if he learned anything that day. He usually doesn’t offer anything up when directly questioned, but a cool fact that’s settled into his brain–“Poppa, did you know that raccoons sleep during the day?”–or a little anecdote–“We made a sandcastle for insects on the playground”–usually bubbles up of its own accord at some point during the trip.

Sometimes we’ll discuss how someone made him feel. We go over why someone might have acted the way they did, why it was good or bad behavior, how he reacted, and how he should handle any similar situations in the future. When he’s feeling sad because someone didn’t want to play with him or didn’t do a good job of sharing their toys, I work especially hard with him to understand what happened, while also working to lift up his emotions so he doesn’t wallow in it.

All this time in the car can be frustrating, because I’m not working. I can’t even make almost any phone calls, because people don’t want to get called as early as 8:30 am and at 5 pm they are in the midst of their commute, picking up their kids, or feverishly trying to finish up a project so they go home at a reasonable hour. Not being productive during this time means I have work faster and smarter for the rest of my day–the story of every parent’s life.

Whenever I get annoyed though, I remind myself that I’m lucky to have this time with my son. I’m getting to know him better, we’re bonding, and we’re developing an epic library of inside jokes sure to amuse us for years to come. When I put our rides in that context, I feel so good–like I could jump into the sky and touch a cloud.

Parenting writer

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, and many other publications. He is author of eight books, including It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery, and the small-press smash Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and their six-year-old son, who already runs faster than he does.