Caution: Parent on board

For most people, commuting is a daily pain, a harrowing gantlet of freeway snarls and orange barrels and moron motorists. One of the joys of telecommuting, you'd think, would be eliminating the drive from your everyday life.

But we who work at home sneer at such assumptions. Not only do we drive as much as ever, but we're never alone in the car.

When you commute by yourself, you get to pick the radio station, you get lost in your thoughts, you get to curse the other drivers with impunity. But us? We've got children in the back seat, making demands, twitching and squirming, shouting and squealing and, God forbid, touching each other.

As we chauffeur the children around, we're at their mercy. They're free to do whatever they want in the back seat because we have to keep our eyes on the road. I remember when I was growing up, my angry father would warn, "Don't make me pull this car over." And my brother and I would giggle and snort because we knew he'd never stop to discipline us, not unless we started a fire. He was too intent on getting the drive finished. Now, I'm the same way.

I've heard all the advice from parenting experts about keeping kids distracted while they're in the car. We play the Slug Bug game wherever we go. For the uninitiated, the game goes like this: You keep your eyes peeled for a Volkswagen Beetle. When you spot one, you shout out "Slug Bug!" and whack your seatmate on the shoulder. I quickly banned the punching part of the game, but my two sons adapted their own version that includes shouting out the color of the Bug. We also count Slug Vans and Slug Trucks (which includes anything with rounded fenders).
Often, when things get too rowdy, I'll just shout out "Slug Bug" and they'll get so busy trying to outnumber my finds that they'll calm down.

Music also soothes the savage brats, and they're particularly fond of oldies, which includes any song recorded before, oh, yesterday. When they're getting loud, I keep turning up the radio, hoping some tune by James Brown or The Temptations will grab their attention. Unfortunately, they're more likely to seize upon some song I can't stand. I'll punch the radio button with muttered disgust only to hear, "No, Dad! Go back! I like that song!" Do I oblige? You betcha. Better to listen to Neil Sedaka than more bickering.

Their tastes aren't all repellent, though they are diverse. Ask my 10-year-old his favorite band and he'll answer the Beatles. The 7-year-old likes the Beach Boys and the Spin Doctors. They both know all the words to "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night and "Walking on the Sun" by Smashmouth. Go figure.

Having kids in the car restricts the driver in other ways as well. From the back seat, the children can eye the speedometer and compare it to speed limit signs whizzing past. A lecture soon follows.

Worst of all, kids inhibit your freedom of speech. You can't comment out loud upon the obvious mental deficiencies of the other drivers. I've always been the type of driver who keeps up a running commentary on what the other idiots are up to, usually in terms that would make a sailor blush. Parents quickly learn to quell this compulsion. The worst word blurted in the heat of the near-miss moment will be the one surely repeated at the dinner table.

Once, a couple of years ago, I was at a red light, facing one other car. Both of us had our blinkers going to turn left. The light changed and I started making my turn. The other driver, who apparently had decided to go straight after all, stood on his brakes, honked and made obscene gestures at me.

Instantly furious, I yelled, "You had your blinker on, you mo--" And then I caught myself, remembering the 5-year-old in the back seat. As I chewed off my tongue, the 5-year-old said somberly, "Dad, it's not nice to call someone a moron."

I said, "That's right, son. Sorry."

And I longed once again for the solo commute.

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