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Primal Drive : Family Car Pool Affords a Lesson in Modern Social Structure

September 06, 1990|Maureen Brown | Maureen Brown is a writer and mother of four.

"Hello," says the gentle voice on the phone, "I'm calling to see whether you'd be interested in organizing transportation for school, choir practice, orchestra, football and/or soccer practice."

Rather than approach the forthcoming school year and its related driving with disdain and trepidation, I am fortified. The van's brakes have been recently checked, the oil has been changed, and a good portion of last year's grime has been cleaned off the seats.

And I expect another season of examining the social phenomenon called the car pool.

My introduction to sociology was through the semester study of a tribal group in Timbuktu (of which my college freshman professor had written a complete text). I spent hours reading of this tribal group's behavior patterns and paralleling them to theories of sociology.

More recently, I have conducted an informal study of the family car pool based on a postulate that the car pool is a social structure in itself.

My analysis is based on years of interacting with numerous same-sex and coeducational groups of children that I have transported. Whereas some social groups are brought together because of geography, employment or other demographics, the family car pool is initiated by primary contact of two or more adults to "share the burden."

I cultivate my car pools selectively. I once received a phone call from an individual that commenced as a breathless run-on sentence. "Hello, I've been told that you aren't anxious to be in another car pool, but, I can assure you that I am extremely organized, my son Jeffrey is very cooperative, I am always always prompt, a very cautious driver who always insists that seat belts be worn, moreover, I'm pregnant and would even drive more than my share for the opportunity of having someone to share the driving in the coming months."

Participants in car pools are not always diligent. I have, at times, lamented the general lack of references available on the other drivers with whom I am about to enter into this cooperative effort.

Everyone can relate to the car pool nightmare of your child calling the office or home and reporting that "the ride is not here." It takes only one time of comforting a frightened eight-year old clutching her cello on a dark corner at 7 o'clock in the evening to know that Mrs. X needs to inform you, and your Child E, that Mr. Y will be the designated driver at Point Q rather than Ms. Z.

The strength of a car pool is organization.

If one can overcome the scheduling obstacles of the car pool, a most pleasurable adventure can be gained in the unobtrusive observation of the social nature of the young group.

Within days, one can scrutinize an immediate identifiable characteristic of the social order or stratification of the assembly. In some circles, this is commonly known as the pecking order.

Show me a car pool for 10 minutes and I will classify the leader, the followers, and the weakest member. I have attempted to negate this hierarchy from every car pool I have driven, and yet, it surfaces with predictability. Noticeable attributes of the so-called leaders are their snide remarks following comments by other riders, their need to always sit by a window or a certain individual and a basic desire to control.

In sports car pools, the dominant role normally is assumed by the most promising player. Unfortunately, the weakest player has a tendency to delegate himself to whatever seat is left. Occasionally, the social structure can shift when the weaker player has a tremendous game and his placement within the group is modified for that period.

Orchestral car pools, regardless of the musical ability of individual members, are invariably dominated by the string players. Woodwinds, brass, and percussionists take a passive role.

Other variables alter the social pattern of the car pool.

On the day of the major mathematic examination, that student who has excelled throughout the term is most revered. He usurps this authoritative guise while being sought for answers to unsolved arithmetic problems. Thus, the status of members is temporarily shifted when individuals of the car pool distinguish themselves with information of necessity for the group.

Manners of dress, or conformity, such as found in tribal groups, also can be noted in car pools.

If you question the mode of dress of your child, you are most likely to detect similar fashion on other constituents of the car pool. If the baggy, ill-fitting outfit is received by a compliment from any member of the car pool, it is an omen that the look will reappear with frequency.

As with clan behavior, language has a definite role in the behavior patterns of the group. Should one child adopt a new phrase or term, i.e. "Don't have a cow, man," "gnarly," or "bogus," this terminology begins to be repeated with frequency on subsequent trips. One car pool of memory embraced the usage of "like" to launch most sentences for a period of an entire year.

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