One aspect of parenthood is simultaneously the best and worst thing ever. In a word: carpooling. I both loathe and appreciate. But when you have three kids under driving age, a spouse who travels frequently for work, and three places to be at the same time, something’s gotta give.
When it works, carpooling is awesome. There’s no better feeling in the world on a dark rainy November evening than watching someone else’s minivan pull out of your driveway taking a car full of rowdy, odiferous 14-year-olds to lacrosse practice. Sitting invisibly in the driver’s seat while the kids in the back talk about all the juicy stuff they never tell you at home? Loved it. Teaming up with another trusty parent who takes your child to an all-day tournament two hours away so you can make your other kid’s swim meet? Bless you, friend.
But I have to admit that there are some serious carpooling downsides to whatever convenience it provides.
Other people’s kids.
You can’t treat them like you would your own. You have to be nice. I could crack the whip on my own kids and yell at them for dawdling or screwing around after practice. They knew to hustle out of the gym/off the field or else they’d risk the wrath of a mother who has already been sitting in the car for half an hour pounding the steering wheel. I’ve got places to be, people—other kids to pick up, dinner to make, homework to deal with. Try guilt-tripping someone else’s kid whom you don’t even know very well—it doesn’t really work.
And it can be stressful. What do you do with those kids who are never ready when you get there? You’ve been sitting in the driveway for 15 minutes before they stroll blithely out of the house, sandwich in hand. Or those two freshmen who delight in taking both a hot AND a cold leisurely 45-minute shower after football practice, while you and your starving kid with three hours of homework sit in the last car in the parking lot? Or the kid who gets in your car, immediately puts in his earbuds, and wordlessly gets out at home, all with less interaction than you’d have with an Uber driver?
But the kids aren’t the only problem. I have learned that some parents are, get this, mooches. They have a skill for sniffing out other people who somehow end up driving their kids around for them. These parents are really adept at finding good-natured people to chauffeur their kid. And if you are basically a nice person, they will absolutely take advantage of you. Ride mooches love carpools.
Ride-mooching parents seem to fall into two categories:
- “My kid is independent” parents. With these ride-mooching parents, it’s intentional. These parents congratulate themselves that they have taught their kids to be independent and self-sufficient. Their kids figure out how to get themselves to and from wherever they need to go. They brag about how they don’t even have to ask Brendan and Tommy how they are getting home from practice, because they find their own rides. Um, no. You haven’t made your child self-sufficient. You have merely shifted your driving responsibilities to some other adult. You end up giving three extra kids a ride home from practice because their parents think they’re teaching them a life skill. That’s not instilling independence, it’s mooching.
- Poor planners. These parents just don’t seem to think about how they’re getting their kids where they need to be until the last minute, and their poor planning somehow becomes your problem.
When my oldest son was a junior in high school, we had a family in our neighborhood whose son was going to be a freshman at the same high school which was about 30 minutes away. This neighbor had known for six months that she needed to arrange his transportation. Literally the day before school started, she called me to ask how my son got to school. “He drives himself, he just got his license,” I replied stupidly. “Could he take my Alex?” she asked sweetly.
Awwwwwkward. I hate to say no, and generally I try to be a good friend/neighbor. But it would’ve been a big responsibility for my inexperienced new driver, who could barely get himself up and out the door on any given school day as it was. I wasn’t even sure under state law if he could have a passenger. I called my sister, a carpooling veteran, for advice—and she gave me a much-needed spine transplant. “Say. No.” she responded. “Her poor planning is not your emergency.” This became my mantra. Try saying it yourself—it’s incredibly liberating.
Personally, I found carpooling to be stressful and complicated. If something makes life harder instead of easier, it’s okay to say no. Until the Bureau of Motor Vehicles finally liberated me from all those hours behind the wheel, I just decided to be the driver.
And I never, ever refused a kid who asked for a ride because in the end, it was just the kind thing to do. Even if that kid had ride mooching parents.