"I'll give you Wednesday door to door if you give me Tuesday soccer drop-off," says one mother, a professional writer.
"Fine, match that with a Tuesday and Thursday late pickup, and raise you another Friday drop-off," responds a single mom and art consultant.
"Hey, I'm raising her three late pickups," chimes in a graphic artist, which cracks the group up and topples the last barrier to completing what is for most working parents the most difficult negotiation of the year: the car-pool schedule.
In two years of bare-knuckle, backyard bartering, these Los Angeles mothers (a group of seven working parents and six children) have learned a thing or two about the fine art of carpooling: how to not lose your children, your composure, or your auto insurance.
This autumn, the group has managed to accommodate not just school, but 16 after-school activities, including Japanese lessons, sessions with a private tutor, Brownie meetings, basketball practice, tennis lessons, soccer games, and art and drama workshops.
Happily, it turns out, after the group has spent more than a few hours reinventing its wheels, experts on car-pool etiquette and exigencies agree with most of their solutions, while offering a few of their own.
First and last are ground rules. Universal rules are essential for everything from what time the morning pickup will occur to who can eat what in the car and when the passenger door is shut (after the last carpooler is in, not between each child as some fifth-graders appear to think).
"Children should be ready and waiting," according to etiquette maven and mother of seven, Darcee Gollatz-Klapp. "A car pool is a favor that mothers do for each other, not a right like the school bus."
As any carpooling parent knows, seat assignments can make or break a hot afternoon battle with rush-hour traffic. "Know where each child is seated ahead of time!" That way, Ms. Gollatz-Klapp says, you cut down on the crawling over one another and fighting. The seating chart can be rotated, to ensure fairness - a parent's best weapon against most squabbles.
The owner of the 67-year-old Gollatz Cotillion, a West Coast chain of ballroom dance and ettiquete schools, also recommends children hold their books on their laps to cut down on underfoot clutter. Other seemingly small, but potentially life-saving tips include agreements about conversations in the car: keep the talk light, don't demand radio, tapes or CDs ("what gets played is up to the parents!"), and stay in your seat belts at all times. Any infractions, counsels Gollatz-Klapp, should result in the perpetrator receiving a warning. Three warnings should mean expulsion from the car pool.
Legal concerns, such as one seat belt per child and proper insurance, are crucial says the etiquette expert. "Parents who keep out-of-state insurance or driver's licenses might lose their coverage if they had an accident," points out Gollatz-Klapp. "Make sure everything is legal or you don't put your child in the car pool," she adds.
Nancy Bruno began KIDS Mobile, a professional car pool service, because 10 years ago, as a single mom, "I desperately needed it." She started with two children and a single van. Now, with more than 100 riders and six vans, she's learned a thing or two about what makes a car pool work.
"Keep a really good timetable, and include a margin for error," she observes. Most people, she says, underestimate unexpected delays and end up frustrated and careless, which is how accidents occur. Ms. Bruno has never had an traffic accident with her vans, but she has had to expel a child from the group. "For [foul] language," she recalls. "He was a teenager who didn't want to be in the car pool and he just wouldn't stop."
Attitude is vital to the success of a car pool, agrees Gollatz-Klapp. From the simple things, "like 'good morning' and 'thank you,' children should know that in a situation where everyone has to be there, they need to make the extra effort to smooth the way." Most children are naturally happy in the mornings and don't need much coaching, she notes. "Usually, it's the adults who need an attitude check."
Learning to live with your car pool is more important than it may seem, Bruno points out. These days, she has to turn people away from her service. "The explosion of duel working parent families has made car pools more common and more critical than ever," she says.
To which Gollatz-Klapp adds one last tip: "It helps to remember that carpooling is not a money issue, it's a friend-to friend-issue." And any bartering should be done with kid gloves.
TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL CAR POOL
* Establish ground rules.
* Parents should have proper insurance and driver's licenses.
* Children should be ready and waiting.
* Make a seating chart to avoid arguments. Rotate it to keep things fair.
* Use seat belts.
* Decide what, if any, music can be played; what food, if any, can be eaten en route.
* Keep a timetable, but with a margin for lateness.
* Children should practice politeness, using "please" and "thank you."