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My kid the driver: terrifying and liberating all at the same time

This month marks a pretty big milestone in our family. J (whom you see there to your right, proudly holding her new Driver’s License) turned 16 a few weeks ago, took her DL test, and became a licensed driver.

I kind of can’t believe it.

J’s father is an auto enthusiast; he’s long had a hobby of tinkering on and driving vintage foreign and sports cars, while I care nothing about cars and would strongly prefer to live somewhere with mass transit so that I never had to get behind the wheel. But the reality is that aside from a somewhat difficult to access and use bus service, the small, southern city where we all live does NOT have mass transit, so cars are required to get where one needs or wants to go.

Over the past year, J’s father has really  taken lead on this area of parenting responsibility by getting J over to the DL testing center to get her learner’s permit right after her 15th birthday, and then helping her practice driving during the next 12 months so that she’d be ready to drive  on her own at 16. I appreciated this because the whole driving thing is such a low priority for me that I probably didn’t understand what a HIGH priority it was for my daughter.

And then he and J’s stepmom did something incredibly generous and bought J an older model German car about 9 or 10 months ago – a convertible, no less. It sounds pretty fancy (and it looks very nice) but they were able to do this because the car needed work, and since J’s dad is kind of a car genius, he was able to find all the parts and do all the work himself.  After they brought the car home soon after J’s 15th birthday, they made a deal with her where she would work a certain number of hours at their house every week until she turned 16, allowing her to effectively pay for half of the car, while they would be paying for the other half.  She loved this idea and kept her part of the deal. And what that means is that in addition to getting her driver’s license the minute she turned 16, J also got her own car on her 16th birthday.

 

She knew she would be getting the car, because she’d done the work to pay off her part of the cost, but then they ALSO surprised her on her birthday by having a new soft top installed on the car (the old one was apparently pretty ratty) and getting her a car stereo. Voila! Her 16th birthday suddenly became THE BEST 16th birthday EVER. (See photographic evidence to your left).

 

 

Before J got her license and her car, I was feeling pretty uptight about the whole thing. I wanted to put a whole lot of rules and restrictions around when she would be able to drive and under what circumstances, etc, etc. The whole thing felt very unfamiliar to me.  I mean, I didn’t even get my license ’til I was almost 18 years old (okay, okay…that is actually because it took me three tries to pass the test) and there was no way my parents could or would buy me my own car at that time. They were too tapped out paying for private school for me and my two siblings to even consider swinging a car for any of us as teenagers.

But when at just-shy-of-18, I finally became a licensed driver, our family DID have this faded blue 1967 Dodge truck that my father mostly used to haul trash to the dump (which has now somewhat inexplicably been re-christened as “The Convenience Center” in the small town where I grew up, but I digress…) Anyway, this  trash truck had no seatbelts, had springs popping out of the single bench seat, and best of all, the horn honked every time you turned the wheel to the left. Yeeehhhhhaaaaaw! I was STYLIN’!

But it was available, so I drove it around town (my parents never let me drive much of anywhere else)..until I ran off the road and rolled the truck with my little brother sitting next to me inside the cab, thus effectively ending my career as a driver until my early 20s, when I married someone who owned a vehicle (J’s father). That’s right – between age 18 and 22, I never even had ACCESS to a car, and I certainly never owned one.

So this whole idea of a 16 year old having her own car and the ability to drive it places seemed very foreign to me, and I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It seemed so…excessive in some way – like it would be spoiling her to let her have a car of her own, even though she’d paid for half of it all by herself. But since J turned 16 a few weeks ago, and was generously gifted with her car by her father, and began driving it, I’ve realized that in a town like ours where getting just about ANYWHERE requires motor vehicle transportation, J having a car of her own and the ability to drive it has some real positives.

With each of my children, I’ve noticed that before they reach some big milestone – like walking, talking or reading – they go through a very cranky phase, almost like pent up frustration is leaking out. Once they are suddenly able to do whatever it was they were trying to do, they relax noticeably and are much less fussy. In fact, right now in our household, 14 month old G is somewhere between crawling and walking, and she’s VERY irritated quite a bit of the time. I fully expect the fussiness to subside once she masters upright ambulation.

So I was familiar with this cranky-til-milestone phenomenon, but because J’s older brother H didn’t really show any interest in driving as a teenager, I didn’t recognize how strongly teenager #2 in the family DID want to be able to have some independence and the ability to get where she wanted or needed to go without depending on someone else (usually one of her parents or stepparents). And while J is generally a super good-natured kid, and has made parenting a teenage girl pretty darn easy so far, as soon as she got that car and became able to drive herself to and from school, and get to volleyball practice and part-time work, etc without having to ask an adult for help, she became even jollier than she usually is.  J is generally very responsible anyway, but I’ve noticed that in the past few weeks, now that she’s more in control of her own life and her own daily schedule (can’t blame anyone else for being late somewhere when you have the ability to get there on time yourself), she’s really seemed even more mature, motivated and organized. This just wasn’t something I expected from her getting her own car.

J and her bestie since early childhood, S - together on their way to J's special 16th birthday dinner. S will turn 16 on October 4.

Yes, I do worry ALL THE DAMN TIME about safety. Driving scares me, and having my 16 year old, 100 lb, 5′ 2″ daughter behind the wheel of a mass of metal traveling 65 miles an hour down the interstate REALLY scares me. She seems to be a very responsible driver, but no 16 year old can ever be a truly GOOD driver because they just haven’t put in the hours on the road yet. Plus, there are all those other drivers who could run into her and hurt her and…..and…..and…..  I really can’t start thinking too much about that or I get completely paranoid, and that’s not helpful for anyone.

Frankly, having lost my oldest child – who was only a teenager himself –  only one year ago, I struggle daily with worrying in an obsessive way about the safety of his four younger siblings, no matter what they are doing. And let’s face it, driving a car is an inherently risky undertaking.  But I understand from talking to other parents who have also lost a child that this sort of paranoid worrying about one’s other children is a normal part of parental grieving, and I am trying as hard as I can not to project my own “stuff” onto my other children, or to let the loss of her older brother impact J’s own adolescence in an unhealthy or unfair way. But I won’t lie; it’s a struggle to let go every time she gets in her car and drives off down our street.

So yeah, we have a new driver in our family. It’s both liberating and terrifying, and it’s also a reminder that she’s really growing up. I am so proud of her. She’s a truly great kid.

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So how about you? How old were you when you started driving? When you had a car of your own for the first time? Do you have teenagers yet, and if so, what are your family rules around driving? If your child or children are still little, how do you feel about the idea of them getting behind the wheel one day? Tell me in the comments below.

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