Teens behind the wheel – oh my!

When my son Max was born 14 years ago, I held him up in his blanket to my father and said “Isn’t he cute?”, to which my father replied, “Wait’ll he steals a car.”

We laughed at what was mostly (I think) a joke. More accurately, if my father wanted to give me a warning about the travails of parenting, he might have said, “Wait’ll he wants you to teach him how to drive.”

Max isn’t of age yet, but I’ve already taught his older sister (now 23) and am working on Austin (16) and Kaylie (15). So far, the three have contributed 10 percent, 43 percent and 5 percent to my gray hair totals, respectively. The stakes of driving instruction are pretty high and, as it is with just about anything you try to teach, some people get it faster than others. There’s always the kid who simply has a knack for, say, drawing and another, equally smart kid who can’t get past a stick figure. Aptitude runs in all kinds of crazy directions: At 44 I can do all kinds of stuff, but I can still get lost driving around the block in my own neighborhood.

Brittany, our oldest, had the challenge of learning to drive in Southern California. Since I usually drive a stick, she started out having to do the herky-jerky in my Subaru, and more or less had it down by the time I traded it in for an automatic. Brittany was always the kind of kid straining at the yoke to do the next thing in the evolution of childhood, so she seemed pretty well prepared for the driving thing, even if she did give me a few instances of heart failure along the way.

Austin is a fine example of how sometimes you can be too smart for your own good. He can ace complicated math tests, perform on stage, write pretty good essays and short stories but, when it comes to shifting my Civic from first to second, it’s like I asked him to quickly learn to play the cello. He over-analyzes the whole thing, and proficiency is slow coming. In the meantime, my spinal column is suffering as he yet again lets up too quickly on the clutch and we buck and jerk to an ignominious stall. The motor races, the tires squeal and the sudden enormity of how many things he has to do at once overwhelms him. As we sit there in silence, dashboard lights blinking, tachometer at zero, all I can say is “Let’s try it again.”

I still remember my early forays into shifting a five speed. My Dad had an old Volvo P1800, and as early as age 6 or 7 he would let me shift from the passenger seat as he worked the clutch. By the time I was ready to learn to drive in my Mom’s 1978 Accord, I was already halfway there. Even so, I know I gave my folks a few frights, especially during my early snow-driving lessons.

The basic instinct for parents, of course, is to have kids remain home at all times. From the time they’re about 18 months old, though, we have to start relaxing the ties that bind; and when they finally solo in the family car or their own junker, well, it’s a scary moment. Even if the last thing we feel like doing after work is go get whiplash at the hands of our teens, we know the more they hear from us the better – hopefully – they’ll be when they’re finally on their own.

And may they drive more prudently than I did at their age ….





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