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Parenting Lessons from the Back Seat

Think back to your most memorable road trip. Got it? Who were you in that moment?

Maybe you were the parent, seated comfortably up front, in full control of the destination and the radio. Or maybe you were a kid in the back seat, oblivious to where you were, knowing only that it was taking longer than you’d hoped.

Either way, there’s a good chance that your feelings about road trips today are directly connected—for better or worse—to your own most memorable experiences in the car.

I’ve loved road trips for as long as I can remember. As one of three siblings, I’ve languished at a window in the back seat while my baby brother fussed in the middle, and I’ve sourly accepted a middle seat fate when the baby was bigger than me.

Over the years, I’ve graduated into the person who has no qualms about taking a road trip on her own, but who is just as happy in the role of navigating first mate to my husband from the passenger seat.

And as the mother of two boys, I relish the opportunity to pack everyone up and hit the road on a family trip. It doesn’t matter if the destination is a family reunion or a theme park vacation; a journey in the car only prolongs my giddy excitement.

But despite my love for the journey, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my parental right to the front seat and my complete control over where we’re headed have been everything I had hoped for in my childhood middle seat dreams.

No one ever calls “shotgun” for the back, right? There’s a good reason.

Kids know the front seat is coveted. Up there, no one is elbowing you out of the way for an extra inch of leg space or complaining about how low your window is rolled down. I’m convinced that many of the torturous moments of my childhood are a direct result of the time my brothers took in the back seats of cars to dream up new ways they could make me cry.

From my childhood vantage point of mental pain and suffering, I could see my parents up front: comfortable in their captain’s chair seats, listening to the news and smiling as they discussed the days ahead. They tuned out our complaints with the greatest hits of yesteryear until the inevitable threat to leave us all on the roadside if we didn’t behave.

I wanted that happiness.

And so, from the moment I could be up front, I took it. It was a rite of passage, and I welcomed it. But now I was being asked to give it up.

My cousin Dexter was going to take us on a tour of Gunma, Japan. We would need to fit all five of us in his tiny red hatchback. One look at my cousin and my husband, both over six feet, and it was clear where I’d be sitting.

With a heavy sigh, I gave up my power position and squished into the back seat between my teen sons.

Caught up in my own resignation, I didn’t immediately realize my sons were beaming. They welcomed me with open arms into their tiny space, like a long-lost friend who’d finally come home again.

I was confused until I realized that that was exactly what I was.

This wasn’t our first time as a back-seat trio. When they were babies I rode back there with them often, one arm resting protectively on their car seats or doling out goldfish crackers. But the older they got the less I’d returned, until one day the idea of being back there hadn’t even crossed my mind.

But here we were.

It was foreign territory for about a minute—shoulders and hips wiggling to make room for this new larger entity that is my body—and then, it was heaven on Earth.

mom and sons in back seat
Photo: Heather Greenwood Davis

They roped me in like a confidante. They told me their stories, shared their travel highlights, and introduced me to back-seat life—a mix of pointing out funny signs, eating all the good snacks, and making fun of the adults up front. We quickly realized that as a threesome, we outnumbered them and made changes to the track list and demands for ice cream stops. We sang along to the hits, posed for back-seat selfies, and rolled our eyes in unison at things the front-seat people said.  It was a beautiful thing.

And it only got better. As we made our way along, the tight hip space disappeared as they settled in. Soon they were leaning in on me, offering impromptu kisses to my cheeks or shoulders and slipping once-familiar hands into mine.

Even when their mouths were singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the real message was clear: They’d missed me, these almost grown men of mine. And with me between them in the back, they were reminded that though I had chosen the comfort of the front seat, I could come back to them—figuratively and literally—and they to me.

I was reminded, too.

I won’t always choose to be their pillow in the middle on road trips, but I will be forever grateful for that moment of insight, clarity, and inclusion on the day that I did.

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on

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