When you think “suburban mom,” you probably picture a woman wearing Lululemon pants carrying a travel coffee mug and driving a minivan so she can kick ass at carpool. Me, I try to change out of the workout pants by noon, but I do make sure to I stop at Dunkin Donuts mid-afternoon and I have been in a lot of carpools (but I drive an SUV—just saying!).
My first carpool experience was when my oldest daughter was in preschool. Another woman worked full-time. She was looking for a carpool where she could drive the kids to school and someone else would handle the pickup at noon. The arrangement seemed like a win-win for both of us. I would not have to bundle up my infant to drive my daughter to school in the morning, and the other woman would not have to leave her office midday to bring her daughter home.
But the carpool turned out to be a lose for both of us. My daughter was cranky in the morning. Many days she would throw a tantrum and not want to get into the other woman’s car. This would cause the other mom to stress that she would be late to work. Then my daughter got sick with the flu for three weeks and the other woman was left scrambling for rides. I found carpooling more stressful than doing drop-off myself, so I told her I would just take her daughter home. Ultimately, she felt guilty not pulling her weight, and at the end of the year, we agreed not to carpool again.
Since then, I have been involved in many carpools. When carpools work, they can be fantastic—good for you, good for your kids, and even good for the environment. But a bad carpool is worse than no carpool at all. After 18 years, I think I have figured it out, so here are the 10 commandments of carpooling:
1. Thou Shalt Make Needs Known in Advance
The best carpools have parents with mutual needs and similar schedules. If one person needs a carpool and the other just wants one for convenience, it may not be the best match.
2. Thou Shalt Not Ask for a Carpool If What One Is Really Looking for Is a Chauffeur
Last year, a woman asked me if I wanted to carpool for a sports team both our children were on. When the practice schedule came out each week, she would inform me that her child needed a ride to every practice and there were no days she could drive due to work commitments. Seriously? If you need a ride and can never drive, it is called a car service, not a carpool. I’m happy to help out if I can, but please, be upfront about what you are looking for.
3. Thou Shalt Not Go Into Long Detail of the Reasons Why One Cannot Drive
If you need to switch days to carpool or can’t drive one week, I get it. Things happen. Kids get sick, work meetings get rescheduled, etc. Let’s mutually agree that we trust each other. If you say you can’t drive, I believe you. Please do not launch into a laundry list of your errands, volunteer efforts, kids’ schedules or work dinners. You had me at, “I can’t drive tomorrow” so just stop there. If I can drive, I will. I am not going to base my decision on whether or not I can drive on the importance of your other commitments. If we both say we can’t drive, then we can enter into a rousing game of “Whose Life Is Busier?” and see who needs to shut up and drive.
4. Thou Shalt Be On Time
One honk is protocol; two is getting on my nerves. My kid can text your kid from the car that we are “here,” but if he needs to get out and ring the bell, that is a deal breaker. “Ready to go” means bladder emptied, shoes tied, coat on, and any equipment you need is in hand.
Same is true for the driver. Be on time or a little early. Occasionally late cannot be helped, but chronically late makes a carpool more stressful and less helpful.
5. Thou Shalt Tell Their Child to Be Polite
I tell my kids all the time, the driver is doing you a favor and is doing me a favor. She is taking time out of her day to take you someplace you need to be. When your kid gets in the car, he needs to say hello and immediately buckle up (not start texting or playing a game on the phone). When he gets out of the car, he needs to take everything he brought. Nothing is grosser for carpool drivers than finding candy wrappers, half-drunk juice boxes, or empty yogurt cartons after a long game of “What the Hell Is That Smell in the Car?” And when your kid gets out of the car, he needs to say, “Thank you for driving me.”
6. Thou Shalt Not Flake Out
Plans change and emergencies happen. But not every schedule change is an emergency. Don’t say you can’t drive 20 minutes before carpool starts unless you have a real emergency. Other people are counting on you and, yes, talking behind your back if your non-emergency cancelation causes them to have to scramble for a ride. You don’t want to get a reputation as “carpoola non grata.”
7. Thou Shalt Only Agree to a Carpool If One Wants To
One of my friends hates to carpool. It just does not work for her and she gets stressed out anytime someone asks her to join one. You don’t have to carpool just because you live in suburbia and drive a big car. Carpools should make your life easier, not harder. Just say no—it’s OK. Backing out midyear or mid-season is ruder than saying no at the start.
8. Thou Shalt Make the Carpool Convenient
I have had successful carpools with two, three, four and my seat max of five. Bigger carpools mean it’s your turn to drive less often. But it may also mean driving all over the place picking up and dropping off so many kids, so there is a trade-off. The whole idea of a carpool is to make life easier. Think about what really works for you before agreeing.
9. Thou Shalt Explain to Their Child That a Carpool Is a Grown-Up Thing
I won’t carpool with anyone whose kid is outright mean to mine, but I will carpool with kids who live close by, but are not BFFs with my child. It’s not a playdate—it’s a carpool. That said, all the kids in the car need to be respectful of one another. Carpooling is a lesson in good manners for your kids. Don’t let them leave one person out of the conversation or talk about parties that everyone in the car is not invited to. Intervene in the discussions only if you hear something inappropriate, rude or hurtful. Otherwise, stay quiet and listen. Driving carpool is a great way to be a fly on the wall to your kid’s interactions with peers. Last week, I listened in as three preteen boys discussed in detail the plotline of the television show Empire —funny stuff!
10. Thou Shalt Be Organized and Communicate
I am assuming that you—the person who organized the carpool with me—are driving. If your husband or babysitter or mother is going to be doing the driving, let me know. I want my kid to know who he is getting in the car with. If you’re running 10 minutes late, tell the group. Make sure you have the home and cell numbers of every parent and kid in the carpool in case of emergencies. Reconfirm who is driving and who is going each week to avoid confusion.
One last addition to the commandments of carpooling—drive safely! You are driving other people’s children and that is a responsibility. Don’t speed or text while driving. Be a role model to the precious cargo in your minivan.