Happy New Year! Presents have been exchanged, food consumed, and relatives visited. But there's one thing the PM (Parent Motorist) still wants that Santa has yet to deliver: A solution to that dreaded refrain: Are We Nearly There?
Millions upon millions of our citizens listen to this repetitive chant, powerless to stop it, during car journeys up and down the country. Year after year, we subject ourselves to car trips with the certain knowledge that we will be tortured and interrogated to within an inch of our sanity by small children using just those four words.
For 99% of families the problem starts with an invitation to celebrate a holiday with family or friends, just a few short hours away.
Adults with children fill the car with luggage, gifts and an extensive variety of snacks, drinks and toys. That supply of food includes healthy or junk, sweet or savoury, wet or dry, crispy or soft, (and by the end) clean or dirty. Toys range from the traditional like books, crayons, colouring books and sticker books, stuffed animals, and dolls, to modern electronic gear such as CD players, DVDs, and gaming equipment. Add to that random, messy and bulky toys that defy spatial reason, but are allowed by adults nonetheless in the futile hope that they too will entertain and distract for a decent period of time. Some examples from our family include a cash register, a trunk of doll clothing, make-up, glow in the dark journals with invisible ink, and bags inside of bags.
Armed with these distractions, and with a fully gassed car, the family departs, in the hope that nothing has been forgotten to ensure the small children in the back remain fully occupied and as silent as possible. Naïve optimism is in the air as the PM backs out of the drive. Maybe this trip will be different.
But no sooner has the PM left the neighbourhood, then cherub number one pokes the first hole in the fragile peace: "Are we nearly there?" she chimes with excitement from the back.
This refrain may sound innocent enough, but a seasoned PM knows the seriousness of the situation. Once spoken for the first time, the torrent is unleashed and those four words will be uttered from the back of the car so fast and furiously that it will eventually put the worst case of Tourette's syndrome to shame. What's all the more daunting, and ultimately terrorizing, is the knowledge that no human adult since records began has discovered a way to extinguish the repeated and relentless interrogations.
Instead, we PMs have a very limited suite of strategies to keep the mantra at bay, each employed on a rotating basis, but with the ultimate result of failure.
Let's quickly run through those strategies in order.
Option one: Answer honestly. "No, we are not nearly there, we just left." Sounds very reasonable, doesn't it? Unfortunately, that only prompts a follow-up question: "How long till we get there?" The answer to which will be unintelligible to the tiny being who has no concept of time. As every PM knows, using option one will only perpetuate and possibly exacerbate the frequency of the question.
Option two: Lie. "Yes. We're nearly there." One might think that would lend to a satisfied silence. Problem is, there is a finite, (i.e. infinitesimally small) period of time after which the waiting seems long and those four dreaded words are uttered again, seeking explanation for why in fact we are not nearly there.
Option three: Diversion and bribery. Remind the small humans that the car is packed with a variety of unnecessary toys and distractions that were designed to capture their attention for three times the length of time than they actually do. Then shamelessly bribe them with food, candy and fizzy drinks, as well as a future supply of treats and toys after the trip if the behavior stops immediately.
But the PM knows deep down that no amount of food and diversions, or promise of future gratification, will stop them. In fact, some scientists claim there could be an inverse relationship between the amount of crap in the car to distract and satiate and its ability to quell the Are We Nearly There interrogation.
So, as you can see, options one and two amount to forms of strategic deterrence, which is as unsuccessful in the long run in a private car as it is on the international stage. Option three, appeasement, is also unsuccessful in the long term for the reason that... well, let's not remind ourselves of The War.
Having exhausted all options, and after hours of repeated, relentless psychological torture and mental and emotional abuse, the PM is close to insanity and all hope for a lasting peace is totally lost. Now the PM is gunning it to the destination while thinking about Jesus's promise: this too shall pass.
Now, before I reveal one more, lesser known strategy, I would like to say in true British style, that some PMs have it worse. In this case, it's the American PMs. You see, "Are we nearly there", is actually the more sophisticated cousin to the American refrain, "Are we there yet". Taken at face value, the lack of nuance is astounding and the words all the more infuriating.
For one, "Are we there yet?" immediately eliminates the use of option 1, leaving just 2 and 3. The American PM might be tempted to answer, 'No...I am still driving this car, listening to your taunts while being forced to remain sober and alert! NO, NO, NO we are not f-ing there yet, as you can plainly see by the fact that the car is still moving at 65 miles per hour and I have no choice but to stay in this torture chamber till we are there, which will never possibly be soon enough." True, the Americans still have option 3, diversion and bribery, but with the epidemic of ADD and overeating in the US, the currency of option 3 is effectively worthless, which brings me to the little known, but morally dubious final solution.
Here's how it works: The PM rearranges the rearview mirror so that she cannot see anything happening in the back seat of the vehicle, nor will her peripheral vision catch kicking or waving of limbs. She then selects music of her choice and increases the volume to make it impossible to hear any sounds other than those sweet lyrics that guide her slowly and softly back from the brink of insanity. I suppose it would be a misnomer to suggest it's a 'solution' because presumably, the children in the back are still chanting their mantra, but the beauty of this approach is that the PM is blissfully unaware of the shouting and the tears and therefore releases all responsibility for answering their refrain.
So to my fellow PMs, as the holiday car journeys fade from memory, I encourage you continue to think about solutions. It would be amazing if one day we could look back and say that 2013 was the year that we finally stamped out the terror. In the meantime, I wish you again, my fellow PMs, a much deserved Happy New Year.