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When the car door shuts, my daughter opens up

I don't much care for driving, per se.

As a mother, I do a fair amount of it but when I have the option to defer to another driver, I often do. I am also a big supporter of carpooling. If I'm going to drive my child to ice-skating lessons or back from Girl Scouts, I prefer driving several kids at the same time. Usually. But when it is only my daughter Eleanor and myself, I've noticed that we may slip into "car talk" along the way.

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Several years ago, when Eleanor was still quite young, I discovered the car had some sort of effect on parent-child communication. It could be bad, but it could also be very good. The bad kind happens when the soft drink spills and she's crying and you are trying to negotiate the flow of rush- hour traffic outside while simultaneously trying to stem the flow of orange soda and tears inside.

That's when the communication breaks down. It's all about reacting instead of responding.

But the good kind - what we call car talk - happens in a sort of magical way. With Eleanor, it actually started very early. She was speaking in full sentences around 2, and nowhere was she more chatty than in the car. Safely strapped in her car seat behind me, she'd jabber away virtually nonstop for the duration of any car trip. She'd comment on the cows in the field, the fire truck, the yellow bird, the length of her fingernails, and the current barometric conditions. ("It's windy today, Mommy!" she'd exclaim as a trash can blew by.)

There were times I had to ask her to not talk for just a moment so I could navigate without distraction. When I did, she'd often react with a sort of surprise that I was there. She was lost in her own world, listening to herself. But she never seemed to mind that I'd heard all her important thoughts.

Now that she's older, almost 10, she's slowly becoming more guarded about what and when she shares with me. It's a natural phenomenon and I understand it, yet I still yearn to know what she's thinking and feeling and experiencing. To that end, the car seems to still be a haven for her to tell me her innermost thoughts.

I think it is because I am somewhat distracted by the driving. "Anything interesting happen at school today?" seems to yield much more response in the car than at the dinner table. Maybe it's because, with my attention focused on the driving, I can't respond as readily with a "fix that problem this way." Instead I am forced to simply listen. Which is, of course, all she wants and needs most times.

When we're driving and the subject turns serious, I've been known to "accidentally" turn right when I should have gone left, giving her more time to talk. I've taken to allowing more than enough time to get places; it keeps us on time, it teaches her promptness and it gives us this relaxed opportunity to drive a slightly longer talking route if the occasion warrants.

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Of course driving and safety must come first. If the topic of conversation turns serious, I simply pull off into a parking lot or other safe place to stop. Sometimes she does need my full attention. But mostly, she doesn't. She needs me to listen to her talk so she can hear herself. In this way, she often works out her own solutions with my never uttering a word of advice.

These car trips are not the only times I talk intimately with my daughter, and I haven't yet loaded her into the car solely to create a secure talking environment.

But I might, one day. If she needs to talk and she still seems more willing there, then I will hop in the car with her. I'll make up for the added smog another day by walking. I vow to drive consciously and conscientiously, keeping both eyes on the road. I'll just keep my heart and my ear toward my daughter on the journey.

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