7 carpool etiquette rules for parents

Jan. 15, 2019

Carpooling is a bit like wealth: It makes life significantly easier, but with it comes great responsibility. While the benefits of setting up a carpool for your kid(s) are hard to argue with — less time in the car, less money on gas, more time for yourself — it’s important to remember that, when you agree to rideshare, you’re making a commitment to other parents and their children. In other words, there’s no room for flaking.

“When everyone lives up to their end of the bargain, carpooling is a huge weight off my shoulders,” says mom Ilene Palmieri of Howell, New Jersey. “But on the flip side, I’ve been a part of carpools where there was a lot of running late and last-minute cancellations. It wound up being a big source of stress for both me and my kids, and in the end, wasn’t worth it.”

Whether you’re heading to soccer practice with a quarter of the team or trusting someone else with your precious cargo, these unwritten etiquette rules are sure to keep your carpool running as smooth as possible. Just like your minivan.

1. Be on time

If there’s one golden rule of carpooling, it’s this: Be on time. Whether you’re the driver or your kids are passengers in someone else’s car, don’t keep people waiting. Not only is everyone’s time equally valuable, it’s important to remember that your kids, consciously or not, are picking up on everything you do.

“Everyone, including your child, has their own filter about what is going on,” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “When you are consistently late, you are sending the message (to everybody) that you can’t be counted on. It conveys you are not responsible, have time management issues, are scattered or simply don’t care.

Gottsman says that when someone is late on a regular basis, they’re essentially say that their time is more important than anyone else’s time.

“Not to mention, running late to school pickup or drop-off can put a child at a disadvantage or even become a safety risk if he or she is left alone waiting for a ride,” she says.  

2. Be upfront about expectations

You don’t need to draw up a formal contract and enlist the town notary when forming a carpool group, but expectations should be clear and concise from the get-go. Having an oral agreement with other parents in the carpool about pickup times and rotation will both reduce both stress and make uncomfortable situations unlikely. That said, if you do find yourself in a position where you feel like you’re doing the lion’s share of work, speak up — and if things don’t change, get out.

“When it comes to dealing with people who are constantly tardy or unreliable, you must be direct, but not unkind,” says Gottsman. “Say something along the lines of, ‘I am happy to drive your child to school today. Moving forward, I would like your assurance that I can depend on you to be on time when you commit to picking my kids up for school. It’s important to me to have my kids where they need to be at the appropriate time.’”

3. Have ‘the talk’ with kids beforehand

Just as you might have a chat about manners and behavior with your kids before a play date, a quick reminder of what’s expected of them in someone else’s car can’t hurt.

“Just as I expect other kids to remember their manners in my car, I always remind my girls to be polite when they’re riding with someone else,” Palmieri says. “Say ‘please and thank you;’ don’t leave any trash behind; speak when spoken to — all that. Someone is, after all, doing me — and them — a favor.”

4. Find someone you trust and don’t over-manage

While it’s doubtful you’d enlist an irresponsible person in your carpool group, the simple fact is, parents worry. If you want to offer a friendly reminder about safety before sending your kids off with someone else, that’s OK. But be mindful of how you do it, and one time should suffice.

“If you are concerned someone would not fasten a car seat properly, then that obviously is the wrong person to entrust your child to,” Gottsman says. “That said, you can say, ‘I am very strict about the seat belt law and want to make sure it’s enforced in your vehicle.’”

And if you can’t relax until you know that everyone has safely gotten to where they need to be, you can tactfully ask for a heads up from the driver.

“’Would you mind letting me know when they are safely in the building?’ is a good way to put it,” Gottsman says. “But, again, if you are worried about someone being irresponsible, choose someone else to drive your kids.”

5. Prepare for hiccups

Even in the most well-oiled of carpools, there are extenuating circumstances. Having a backup plan in place and giving ample notice, if possible, will help keep things rolling when last-minute snafus occur.

“If I have even the slightest notion that I’m going to be running late, or worse, unavailable for carpool pickup, I text the other parents right away,” says Mary Ragazzo, of Cranford, New Jersey. “I don’t want to leave anyone to scramble at the very last minute.”

Ragazzo’s carpool group also has a rule that, if possible, the person cancelling finds a backup.

“If I can’t make it, I try to have someone else at the ready,” Ragazzo says. “Finding a backup isn’t always possible, but, at the very least, parents appreciate the effort.”

6. Think small

In theory, the larger the carpool, the less time you spend driving, right? Not necessarily. While you may have less “turns” driving kids to school or practice in big carpool groups, you — and the kids — will spend a lot more time in the car courtesy of multiple stops.

“In the first carpool I joined, there were four of us. I thought, ‘Great! I’ll only have to drive once a month!’” says Shannon Jensen, of Canandaigua, New York. “But school pickup became a nightmare. With so many stops — and one child living way across town — I was in the car about an hour every time it was my turn. And the kids were all getting home so late. After few months, we just decided to scrap it.”

7. The number one priority: safety

Need we even say it? Don’t text, talk on the phone or, heck, even think about your phone when you’re driving — especially when you’ve got kids in the car. Additionally, it’s a good idea to make sure your car is in tip-top shape before taking the carpool plunge. Get the brakes checked, the oil changed, the whole nine. Is it overly cautious? Perhaps. But if there ever was a time to be, now certainly is it.

Read next: 25 after-school activities for kids

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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