Snakes on a Plane: Kids Version


Question:  Who has these kids?

Answer:  No one.


Much more like this, probably.

Am I right?

If there is one scenario that consistently flummoxes those of us who are trying to follow respectful parenting practices, it is the Car.  Sure, when you’re at home, you can do all the “right” things.  You know what they are.  Get down on their level.  Make eye contact.  Connect.  Try to figure out what’s going on, what might have led to the behavior.  Let kids work things out.  Tell kids “I won’t let you…”  Create physical barriers to the behavior.  Walk out of the room.  Direct children to more appropriate outlets (screaming outside, spitting in the sink, hitting a pillow, for example).

But what do you do when you are driving down the street–or worse yet, a highway–and your children are screaming or yelling at top volume in the back seat?  Make no mistake, these are the moments in which people decide that maybe this whole respectful parenting thing really is for the birds, and that there are in fact times when punitive discipline or punishments are called for.  After all, our parents told us that if we didn’t shut up, we’d get punished when we got home, or pulled over and told us to get out of the car (which is more than a little bit frightening to a child)….and we seemed to get it.

I won’t bother telling you that “I won’t (or can’t) let you scream” doesn’t work.  I’m sure you know that already.  See, that’s the tricky thing.  There are things we can keep our children from doing or behaviors we can physically stop, like hitting or biting or breaking things.  And then there are things that our children have complete control over, namely the sound (and other things) that come out of their bodies.  If a child wants to scream in the car, they can scream in the car.  If they want to spit in the back seat, they can do that.  If it comes out of their mouth, it’s under their control, not ours.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where the real test begins.

There are things that our children authentically have complete control over.  We cannot “make” our children stop yelling.  We cannot stop our children from peeing in their pants (not to change the subject…I know that’s a different post).  There are things that we cannot effectively demand, even when we really need or want to.

“Maybe YOU can’t stop them from yelling.  I can.”  I believe you.  I also believe it is an illusion.

Punitive discipline is attractive when we face these issues, because it offers the illusion that we can stop these behaviors.  Punishment–especially physical punishment–makes us feel powerful.  We do it or say it, they stop.  Power.  I am the parent.

On some level, it is true.  A raised hand (even one that has never lowered in a strike) will stop a behavior–and in that moment, we feel like this is the only thing that will really work–because it does.  It stops them.  The problem is that punitive discipline stops them through fear, and most of us don’t want to have relationships with our children that are based in fear–not only because it feels wrong, but because we know, both from research and experience, that it backfires and it teaches our children the wrong things.  A child who loses recess at school for talking in class may learn (if you want to call it learning) not to talk in class, but they learn to find other behaviors that won’t result in getting caught.  A child who is threatened with punishment for yelling in the car may stop yelling in the car (leading you to think you’ve been successful), but they will find ways to “punish back” (gum on the seats, anyone?)  It is an illusion, this amazing feeling of power and control.  I hear it again and again “We solved one problem, and now we’re on to something else.  They’re a moving target!”  No.  They’re not a moving target.  And no, you’re not on to something else.  It’s still the same thing, dressed in different clothing.

So, let’s just say you’re convinced.  You’re committed.  You understand that connection and respect are the key to cooperative, prosocial behavior that will become internalized and automatic and not driven by fear of consequences.  Great.  So what do you do when they’re screaming in the back seat of the car?

First, let’s get the whole issue of electronics out of the way.  This is the first and most immediate answer of most parents when faced with this problem.  Many of us have cars and minivans with DVD players, or we travel with tablets or smartphones.  Turn on the screen–problem solved.   On the up side, screens are the undisputed reigning champion of distraction.  On the down side, screens do not help children learn to regulate their behavior or emotional states, skills that will really come in handy in school or social situations in which screens or “entertainment” may not be available, and they may be similarly hungry, tired, or bored.

And while we’re on the subject of distractions (reigning champion or otherwise), I want to acknowledge that there are also parents out there–especially those that have chosen respectful parenting strategies (like RIE®)–who choose not to use distraction as a behavioral management strategy, for the same reasons as mentioned above (i.e. it does not help them learn self-regulation).   I count myself among that crowd, so I am also not inclined to go overboard with blatant distraction strategies such as pointing and saying “Wow! Did you see that bright orange car?”, as a child is screaming or crying.

This seems is an opportunity to better define “distraction.”  Would I advocate for playing music in the car that all can sing along to?  Would I play the “license plate game” or “alphabet game” with older kids while on a long car trip?  Would we listen to audio books as we drove?  Aren’t those things distractions?  Ah.  Great question–and frequent point of confusion, so I’m glad you brought it up.  Oh.  I brought it up.  Well, still.

Yes, those things could be considered distractions.  The difference is what they are distractions from.  Singing together or listening to (or making up!) a story are distractions from the potential monotony and physical restriction of being in the car for a long period of time.  There is nothing natural about that sort of restriction–and it gets to all of us, not just children.  There is a huge difference between distraction from that sort of forced monotony or restriction (after all, it’s not children that choose to be in the car), and distraction from emotion.  It is the latter that many of us try to avoid.  Listening to audio books can be a wonderful part of a routine on a car trip.  I would not advise putting an audio book in the player in response to a child crying or screaming, i.e. as a way to get them to stop, because it feels disrespectful and reactive rather than proactive.  I’m hoping the distinction is clear.

So what to do?  There are so many options.  Keep in mind, we’re not talking about distress crying here–we’re not talking about infants whose cries have escalated into screams or are in any way reminiscent of pain, and we’re not talking about motion sickness, which should always be considered.  We’re talking about children screaming or yelling or shouting–with words, for attention, for complaint, or as part of interaction with another child or sibling.

Every child is different, and every situation is different.  Does this happen often?  Is it just a bad day?  How old is the child?  Are they overtired or hungry?  Are they overstimulated?  Have there been unusual events or stresses in your life?  Does the screaming typically happen on the way home from day care in the afternoon or evening (often a young child’s worst time)?  What was the transition from home or school to car like? Smooth?  Rushed?  What is the child’s personality?  Do they have very strong reactions that dissipate very quickly, or are they slow to escalate, but once upset, have great difficulty coming back down?  In the future, might you plan timing or transitions a little differently so as to minimize frustration?  All of these things matter.  Beyond these things, there are things you can do.

  • Talk to your children in advance.  Even the little ones.  Even the ones so little you think they don’t understand your words–they do.  Tell them what to expect, how long it will be, what you need from them, what will happen, where you are going, how long they’ll have to be in the car.   Acknowledge and validate if they have a hard time being in the car.  Make it clear when you are going to be in the car for only a few minutes for a quick trip to the grocery store and when you are going to be in the car for 9 hours for a trip to Grandma’s house.  Let them know what’s coming–not a minute before you leave, but in advance so that they have time to adjust (unless you have a child for whom too much advance notice makes it worse, in which case, shorten that). Sometimes we avoid this, because we’re afraid of a tantrum or refusal.  It may come down to a choice between a tantrum at home (leave time for it, just in case) or a screaming child in the car.  Home is better.  Let it happen.  Support them through it.  Then have a peaceful car ride.
  • Remember developmental needs.  If it’s a long trip, plan to stop frequently and have opportunities to run around.  Resist “pushing through”….or try not to be surprised when things fall apart a bit when it’s been too long a stint..
  • Keep in mind that the favored limit setting phrase for young children (“I won’t let you” or “I can’t let you”) does not work if you cannot physically back up the limit.  Verbal limits are relatively useless for young children even under ideal conditions.  You can’t say “I can’t let you” unless you actually can’t let them.  In the car, especially if you are the only adult, you can’t physically stop them…so those words won’t work like they do under other conditions.
  • There are two primary strategies for dealing with children screaming in the car, in my book.  1) Ignoring it, and 2) Pulling over.  You cannot allow a child’s behavior to make you stressed or distracted such that you are not able to drive calmly and carefully.  Period.
    • If you can remain very calm and not feel stressed and not respond and drive very safely, tuning it out, you can try to say “Please use a quiet voice in the car.”  If that doesn’t work, ignore the screaming.  Calmly acknowledge the upset and drive on to where you are going.
    • If the screaming makes you upset or distracted,you must intervene, because it becomes a safety issue.  If you are on a regular road, pull over and stop the car.  This allows you to assess the situation (is there a pressing need?) and to turn around and say (calmly and matter of factly, not angrily) “I can’t let you scream in the car, because it’s not safe. I have to focus when I’m driving and I can’t focus when you are screaming. I’m going to wait until you are ready to ride without screaming.”  If you get back on the road, and they begin to scream again, you pull right back over.  If you are on a highway, and there is no safe place to pull over, you pull off at the next exit, and you wait.  If, at a certain point, it becomes clear that this is going to happen many times, and so will impact where you are going (or result in your needing to return home), make that clear without making it a threat (“When we have to stop the car for screaming, we won’t have as much time at the pool.” or “It seems like this is a hard day for you.  You’re having a hard time being in control of yourself.  We will go again another day”)
  • One of the challenges that comes up repeatedly is the older child shouting (sometimes with good intentions!) and waking up the baby or toddler.  This is also something to discuss in advance.  Let the older child know that the younger child might fall asleep, and when that happens, that could be boring, so if that happens, to please let you know right away and you’ll put on a story for them, or do something together.  Acknowledge that it’s more fun when the sibling is awake, but that “we have to let them sleep so that we can all have fun when we get where we’re going.”  If you know that the sibling falling asleep is a trigger for the older one, you could also put together a “special bag” or “special box” or have a “special” audio story or storytelling/game that is just for that child and that only comes out when the baby is sleeping.
  • Be aware and open to the idea that shifting this behavior may require sacrifice, including for you.  This is often the hardest part for many of us.  We’re on our way to meet friends at the zoo, something our children love and that we’ve all looked forward to, and we have to pull over 17 times on the way there.  We wind up having to call our friends and say that we’ll be an hour late because of difficulties in the car and we have to let our kids know that we won’t have as much time to spend at the zoo, and then we feel resentful that we drove all the way to the zoo and paid an admission fee and we only got to stay for an hour because it took us so long to get there because we were following that crappy advice that said to pull over.  I get it.  It’s frustrating, disappointing, and often embarrassing–and of course we keep telling ourselves if we can just ignore the screaming and get to the zoo, it will all be okay…which might be true, and under some circumstances might be fine to do, as long as you can stay calm and drive safely and be unruffled all the way, even with a screaming child in the car–in which case, you don’t need this blog post, because you’re not rattled by kids screaming in the car!
  • Sometimes those sacrifices are even bigger.  Sometimes we never get to Grandma’s for dinner.  Sometimes we’re late. Sometimes we have to cancel the outing.  Sometimes we are upset with those outcomes ourselves, and we fall into the untrue but powerful “nobody else’s kids do this” trap, and we feel like bad parents.  Do your best to remember that you’re in this for the long run.  What if one dinner cancellation means ten more dinners in the future with peaceful car rides there and back?  What if this is a part of life at three, but not at four or five or six?  Does that help?

Lastly, for the supremely unhelpful advice, especially for those of you for whom the Snakes on the Plane, er, Kids in the Car is already a reality:

  • Start young.  Very young.  As young as possible. Establish a routine for the car–a “bag of tricks”, whether that be music that you all enjoy, an adult sitting in the back seat with an infant, frequent breaks, a relatively low volume peaceful “vibe.”  Start early.  It won’t prevent this entirely, but it will help.
  • A lot of us come to see our time in the car as “a break” from parenting.  Child in the back seat, happily occupied, parents having a rare opportunity for adult conversation, single parent getting a great uninterrupted half hour of listening to NPR, you can almost forget they’re back there and feel like you’re gliding down the highway in the days before parenthood, free as a bird.  Nope.  Sorry.  You’re still a parent.  Even in the car.   Kids get upset, need things, get frustrated, have tantrums, and feel things in a car seat, just like they do playing in your living room…except maybe more so, because they don’t have freedom of movement.  Come into it with those expectations, and you’ll be a step ahead of the game.
  • Most importantly, provide abundant opportunities–again, from the very earliest months–for children to engage in uninterrupted independent self-initiated play.  Even young babies can do this.  Put them in a protected, safe area, on their backs, and let them think and explore and move and look around and “entertain” themselves with nothing more than the world around them–no special toys or equipment needed.  Make sure they’re not hungry or overtired or need a new diaper or in pain…and then leave them alone–they’ll let you know when they need you. Children who are given opportunities, from the very beginning of life to explore the world at their own pace grow to play independently for increasing amounts of time as they get older.  These are children who you don’t need to worry about in the car.  They have no expectation of “being entertained.”  Their systems will be wired by that time to find plenty of things to do and think about and look at all on their own.  Maybe you will even get to have a conversation with your spouse, who knows?

What respectful strategies have you tried when faced with this situation?

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