I had a request from a parent today to write about teens and driving. This is an issue for parents that is fraught with ambivalence. I want my teen to drive, he/she can do errands for me. I don't want my teen to drive it terrifies me. I want my teen to drive, it is a right of passage and teaches responsibility. I don't want my teen to drive he/she is too easily distracted, and it terrifies me. I want my teen to drive, then I can go to bed early on Friday and Saturday nights and I won't have to schlep him/her around. I don't want my teen to drive, I'll lose control of where he/she goes and it terrifies me. Does this two-sided conversation sound familiar?
First, teens have been learning to drive at age 16 forever, literally, so someone at some point must have thought it was the right age. If you are a nervous nelly by nature, perhaps you are not the person to teach your teen to drive, or at least not the person to teach them to merge onto a busy highway. It is important for you to know your own limitations when it comes to taking your teen out for a practice drive. Do what you feel comfortable doing. Your teen will feel nervous enough without having to deal with your nervous breakdown. If you are comfortable driving around the back streets of your neighborhood for a half hour, that is still useful drive time. Practice is practice. Perhaps your partner, aunt/uncle, neighbor, person you hire off Craig's list can be the passenger for the practice you feel uncomfortable with. Your teen needs to feel your confidence in him/her, and constantly giving a play by play is not only annoying but potentially dangerous as well. The reality is that your teen needs a lot of practice time. If you are nervous, try going on short trips to the gas station, drug store and pizza parlor. Getting a license is a family affair and a commitment, and it is a right of passage that is meaningful. Getting a license is both a reality and a metaphor for the independence teens need to feel to be ready to take on life. It really is important to support that independence and show confidence in their ability to take on this new and important responsibility. This is training for life.
Should all kids get their licenses? NO. If your teen has been avoiding taking responsibility in other areas of their life, than working towards their license seems counterproductive. A license is not an entitlement. It is a privilege granted to those that have shown in other areas of their life that they can be responsible. If you have a teen whose school performance leaves something to be desired, perhaps working on the drivers license becomes the incentive to be more responsible for school performance. If your teen regularly flaunts curfews and house rules, and is suspected of fooling around with drugs and alcohol, than your I get it moment might be: 'I get that teens fool around with drugs and alcohol, or try to screw around with the rules, but you have come in a number of times smelling of booze or pot, or you are constantly late for curfew, and aren't always truthful about what you are up to on the weekends and that makes me wary of supporting you getting your license. Until I feel that you are being more responsible, and show us that you can follow through on what you say you are going to do, than we won't sign off on the license or even learners permit."
It is normal to feel apoplectic, and most kids do great and rise to the challenge. But if there are other red flags waving in the wind, pay attention to your gut, and act accordingly. It is also your responsibility to make sure that your teen is educated and understands that cell phone use is verboten in the car. Yes there is a law now, but again, just saying don't do it, is not helpful. Help them to come up with strategies for where to put their phone as soon as they get in the car, so they don't feel tempted or have easy access to just make that "quick call". Perhaps get in the habit of as soon as they get in the car, they shut off their phone and put it in the glove compartment, or for girls, shut it off and put it in their pocketbook and in the back seat. They need your help with creating these rituals.(I have a great tip in my new book called "Driving Distracted" that give a number of strategies for safe driving).
The bottom line is you will always be nervous. My daughter is grown and when she visits and takes the car, I am a wreck, and she is a good driver. This is a parents' cross to bear. We love our kids so much we cannot bear the thought that something might happen to them. And we have to get over it. Eventually they will need to get out of the neighborhood and get on the highway just like in real life. Confidence comes from practice, and than a leap of faith. There is no prescription for how long it takes to master a car. I know a ton of adults I would never drive with, and they have been driving for 40 years. Give your teen the practice they need to feel competent, the rituals they need to have to be safe, and the love and support to be responsible. and then just close your eyes and hope for the best.