Carpool Confidential

The inside story on making it a safe, smooth ride.

Carpooling Basics

Sometimes it's hard not to feel as if you are your child's personal, unpaid chauffeur ("Oh, Jeeves, don't forget, I will be needing a ride to soccer practice after I'm done with my playdate this afternoon"). So joining a carpool could be the road to liberation from endless hours behind the wheel. But you're probably a little ambivalent about letting someone else shuttle your precious cargo around. There are safety issues. And then there are those relationships that you're about to enter into with other parents who may have different values. We hope that having some answers to your questions will make you feel better about the little complexities of carpooling.

Q. This is my first time carpooling. What sort of things should I be on the lookout for?

Some carpools operate like a well-oiled machine, complete with Excel spreadsheets and parents who are responsible for driving even if their child is home sick from school. Others are more casual, with plans being rearranged up until the last minute. So first, look for a group that best fits your needs and your ability to contribute. "I've been in both kinds and each has upsides and downsides," says Cecilia Schmidt, a Brooklyn mom and carpool veteran. "If it's essential that you get to work on time every morning or you've got to drive another kid to a different school, I'd pick the highly organized kind -- even though it's more effort and responsibility," she says. But if you're using a carpool just as a chance get some stuff done, you should look for something more laid-back and less pressured. Either way, before you commit, meet with your future carpoolers in person to talk through key concerns. "Safety issues, discipline, snacks, timeliness, and any health issues are all important topics to address face-to-face," says Dorothy Singer, EdD, codirector of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

Q. How can I trust the other parents in the carpool to be as conscientious about safety issues as I am?

Part of the success of any cooperative endeavor is adopting a get-along-go-along attitude. But car safety is one issue you shouldn't compromise on. So first state flat out that under no circumstances should a safety rule be bent or broken. "You have to treat it the same way you would if your child had a life-threatening peanut allergy," says Lara McKenzie, EdD, a child-safety expert with the Center for Injury Research and Policy with the Columbus Children's Hospital, in Ohio. Tell the other parents that before you can commit to being a part of the group you need their full agreement on this issue. If, going forward, you hear that kids are unbuckled, not using boosters, or riding shotgun, it should be a deal-breaker -- even if everything else is great.

Q. I find the idea of driving a minivan full of 6-year-olds a little daunting. How do I keep them all in line?

Start out by coming up with some basic rules that all passengers agree to follow. Good ones include: All body parts stay inside the car, use inside voices only, and keep hands to yourselves. Make sure everyone communicates these key commandments to their own child. But sometimes things might spiral out of control. "Never discipline from the front seat," says Dr. Singer. "Pull off the road to let everyone chill out, and wait until things are under control before you continue." Correcting other people's children is always touchy, so if you find yourself with a persistent behavior problem, talk candidly with his parent. Just as a matter of safety, you might have to drop a kid from the group.

Q. Last year, one of the moms was always late. How can I keep this from happening again?

It's not only disrespectful to always run late, but it's also a safety issue: "A driver in a hurry is more likely to speed or miss traffic signals," says AAA's Jennifer Huebner. And being late sends a negative message to the kids. That said, everyone's going to be tardy once in a while, so it pays to build a little wiggle room into the schedule. The best way to deal with everything from lateness to disagreements over rules is constructively: Make it about you, not about the other person. "Say, 'I'm sorry, but this is really important to me,'" says Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute, who suggests a phone call for small matters but a cup of coffee for more serious issues. "Keep it polite, keep it cool, and if you have to really confront someone or 'break up,' make sure you follow up with a playdate for the kids as an act of good faith."

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