When I got back from the men's room, the kid was out of his car seat. We were at a rest stop somewhere between Chapel Hill and Richmond, a quick break before driving on till lunchtime. It was raining, so my wife and I were taking turns staying in the car while the other person ducked inside.
He didn't need to use the restroom (another reason not to be hasty about potty training), but the slowing and stopping of the car had woken him up. So my wife had popped him out of the harness, and he was clambering happily around the back seat with her. I took her place in the back, and the boy started climbing over the console and pointing to the dashboard. He wanted to see the driver's seat.
I despise the child safety seat. I feel guilty for even saying that, and I'm supposed to feel guilty, because child safety seats save lives-they do, lots of lives, believe it.
(Except for the children who roast to death because they were tucked away in the back, out of view in their plastic safety-cocoon, and the parent at the wheel had a brain-blip and forgot them, for which you hate and despise the parent because the parent was so self-centered as to monstrously forget the most precious thing in the world, a child, a child which you love more passionately in the abstract, from the far-off remove of thinking about it as you read things on the Internet, than the stupid selfish child-not-loving person who gave birth to it or went to the trouble of adopting it loved it, which is why it's dead. Except it could absolutely happen to you, too.)
And I am very big on seat belts. I'm a seat belt absolutist, front or back, with or without seat belt laws. I have walked away from a totaled car with nothing but a bruised knee. You are an idiot if you ride without seat belts, and if you want to throw some libertarian nonsense around about your personal choice, go tell it to my old neighbor who used to have to scrape dead people off the pavement for the State Highway Administration after they'd made bad decisions in that particular area of self-expression.
(Taxicabs, it goes almost without saying, are exempt from all this, because they are protected by magic.)
But child car seats are miserable. We were driving through Virginia because we were coming back from a wedding, and a constant refrain among the wedding guests had been that this or that child was not in attendance because the drive would have just been too much for the child to take. This did not seem to be unwarranted coddling. After your sixth or seventh hour locked in a five-point harness, unable to look over your shoulder, propped up so you can't sleep without your head lolling awkwardly over-you'd start screaming too.
The safety seat is ruining American family life and the automotive experience. I was horrified when vehicles started coming equipped with DVD players-individual ones, even. God forbid that children should ever be deprived of constant, demographically-targeted amusements. This is why so many of them now feel free, on entering someone's house as a guest, to march straight for the TV and tune to the Disney Channel or something else hellish, turned up loud. The world is no longer allowed to be boring.
But when I was little and bored in the car, I wasn't strapped down and immobile. I had, at most, a little booster seat that went under the lap belt, with a tubular metal roll bar that probably would have impaled me in the event of an accident. A fair amount of the time, I was crawling around loose in the cargo space, or on top of rear seats folded flat. Even with a seat belt on, I could work through the dull hours by rolling Matchbox cars around the back seat, or craning my head around to watch the scenery, or sucker-punching my brother in the floating ribs. There were options.
Now it seems fairly reasonable to pump SpongeBob Montana or Hannah SquarePants at the captive audience. Or maybe when they're older-the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping them in car seats till they're as much as 65 pounds-a handheld video-game system, inside of which, using their still-movable thumbs, they can roam around freely and beat up prostitutes.
Also, until we were well into our teens, my brother and I rode around in the back seat of a two-door Volkswagen Rabbit. Or a Beetle. It would be physically impossible to do that with children today. When I loaded my son in his rear-facing infant seat into the back of our two-door Volkswagen Golf, I could barely return the driver's seat to an upright position. As I drove, the frame of the safety seat steadily poked me in the vicinity of the right kidney, through my seat back.
This is an underappreciated aspect of the SUV culture wars. Yes, it's absurd and bullying when people say that, to feel "safe" with their children on the road, they need to drive a bloated modified truck. But the bloat begins inside the vehicle, with the requirement that each small, portable child be surrounded by a huge, cumbersome safety rig. The GMC Yukon starts to look like a reasonable way to get the American Academy of Pediatrics off your back.
With one toddler and two adults, we've been getting by on a borrowed Honda Accord. The Accord could hold two small children, as long as you didn't need to interact with either one while the car was in motion. I sat down in the front seat with the kid. He played with the steering wheel and the stereo buttons, squirming around, free to explore. He beeped the horn, then beeped it again. He was having a great time.
When he was an infant and we were living in Beijing, we faithfully lugged his car seat everywhere. We did not trust Chinese taxis to be protected by American taxi-magic, certainly not with a child that little, and we would hunt for one of the minority of cabs that had seat belts at all, to which to attach the seat ("Houbian you meiyou anquandai?": are there seat belts in the back?). But when he outgrew that first seat, howling on a crosstown ride because he couldn't move his shoulders, we gave up and pretended the taxis were safe. He rode loose, with cabbies fretting about his shoes on their slipcovers. He turned around and craned his head to look out the rear window at the moon.
When I was very small, maybe in kindergarten, my dad would sometimes step on the clutch in the Beetle and let me shift the gears. Children could ride up front then. Now they have to stay in the back, so the passenger-side airbag doesn't detonate and rip their heads off. Another safety innovation. It was a passenger airbag that helped me walk away from that crash.
Safety is about making tradeoffs. Not dying on the road is a very good thing to trade for-so good, nobody feels any need to make improvements to the improvements. It's churlish to complain about it. Your car is a little metal death box, and whatever joy you may find on the road is strictly a function of your insane denial of that truth. The safety gear gives you another layer of denial to work with: I am doing all this in the most prudent, least reckless way that automotive engineers have yet discovered. Got it, Death?
My wife came back from the restroom. We strapped the kid in again and got back on the road. At lunchtime, we made a nice long meal of it, at a Cracker Barrel, letting him work out the boredom. We were almost all the way home before he started crying.
Tom Scocca's first book, Beijing Welcomes You, is in the hands of his editor at Riverhead Books. He also writes intermittently at Tom Scocca dot com, and for newspapers and magazines. He would likely write for you, for money, if you have some. Ask him!