I thought I would explode. After I’d finally nailed down a three-family carpool for the school year, one mom was insisting that I buy not one, not two, but four booster seats for the five-minute ride home. In her view, if carpool kids need boosters, your car should accommodate them. The problem was that at age seven, my youngest was tall enough to ride like the big boys. But in the name of carpooling, we worked it out. After I dug two boosters out of storage, each of the other moms donated one to my car. Now all I had to do was remember to keep them in the trunk.
Carpooling: It’s a necessary evil. With three kids at three different schools, I can’t live without it. But it does have its perks. Sharing drives saves precious time and money, helps the environment and allows kids to get to know other kids along the way. Still, there’s no getting around it: Carpooling is complicated. So if you’re looking to be part of a carpool — for school, hockey, ballet or Brownies — here’s how to steer around those bumps in the road.
Pool your resources
You may be surprised to learn that finding a carpool is not as easy as joining a club. In fact, even your close friends may not jump at the chance to carpool with you. When I asked one chum, she rhymed off a list of reasons for swearing off carpools forever: the obligation to drive other kids home even if hers have playdates, having no seats left for her kids’ friends, and losing the freedom to just head out for ice cream after school, to name a few.
So how do you get a green light for your carpool? Start by using your contacts. Send a group email explaining that you’re looking, and letting people know where you live, how many kids you have, and when you’re available to drive. You can also call on the school to help. If there is no committee to make matches, then ask if you can post a carpool board outside the school office. When you do get a nibble, ask about the person’s availability during the day. Some parents are more flexible when it comes to scheduling problems, like filling in for last-minute doctor’s appointments or during vacations.
Design a road map
Before shaking hands, you have to map out a schedule. That’s when you’ll discover if your idea of fair sharing jibes with other parents’. It may be that a mom with a single child in the carpool feels that since you have double the kids, you take on double the drives.
And make sure that all carpool members are committed until the school year ends, says Aurora, Ont., mom Donna Garbe. She ended up scrambling for a spot for her 14-year-old in another carpool in the middle of winter. “I got a call from my carpool partner letting me know that, as a punishment for bad behaviour, her kids would be walking to and from high school from now on,” Garbe says. So until she could find a new carpool, that meant her daughter, Lily, would sometimes do the 40-minute walk too.
Next, think about timing. If you are making three stops in the morning, you won’t have 10 minutes to honk while kids are still getting dressed. It’s just as annoying when you are last in the schoolyard because the teen in your carpool is hugging every single friend goodbye. So make sure that all parents explain to their kids the importance of early rising and hustling to a designated spot at the end of the school day.
If your kids won’t be in carpool for any reason — they have other activities or are home sick — be sure to email everyone in the carpool ASAP, even if it’s midnight. The sooner you contact everyone, the more likely another parent will be able to switch days with you. Otherwise, you may end up stuck on driving duty even if your kids are not in the car one day.
Now it’s time to talk car set-up. Are some kids old enough to ride in the front? Do some need car seats?
If kids are small, make sure all parents are aware of the law regarding car seats, says Lisa Wright, a paediatrician. After moving with her family to Toronto from Montreal, the new doctor in town was invited to a “get to know your carpool” meeting. To it, she brought along a copy of the regulation that required kids under 19 kilograms to sit in a car seat, just in case it was a grey area. But when she pulled it out of her purse, one of the carpool moms got irate.
“She agreed it was her responsibility to put my daughter in a car seat, but thought it was up to her whether to put her own child in one,” Wright says. “I told her that in my car, her child was riding in a car seat every time because I wasn’t comfortable putting her in danger.” That was the end of that carpool.
If you have in-car rules, it’s your job to communicate them to both parents and kids. No eating allowed? Be clear that means no clogging the ashtrays with chewed-up gum, either. Trying to get kids to stick to an “eating without mess” policy is impossible, says Sharon MacKay of Toronto, who grew tired of scraping bits of cucumber and other goopy messes from her car’s leather seats every night. “No matter what I said, they ate like piggies,” she says.
You may have other rules too, such as no cursing, no fighting, no blaring music. If so, discuss in advance how you will all deal with discipline problems. Otherwise, you run the risk of your kids rushing in the door to tell you the carpool mom is mean, or having that mom accuse you of being unfair.
Stay in touch
The best carpools start and end with communication. That means keeping your cellphone on at carpool time, and consulting your calendar as many times as you need to. Inevitably, one day, a child won’t emerge from school, or will want to go to a friend’s house to work on a project, and you will have to contact the parent to ask what to do. There’s nothing more frustrating than not having your phone or getting another parent’s voice mail when you’re standing with cold kids in an empty parking lot.
And having a smartphone or daybook handy at pickup time will save you from having to stay on top of your ever-changing carpool schedule. Your memory is sure to have trouble keeping track of the fact that the after-school programs started last week, one child is sick, and another is going to soccer with a friend. Take it from someone who considers herself super-organized, but left a kid behind one day: When it comes to carpool, you’re never too old to learn.