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January 14, 2013

Putting my son in the driver's seat

By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

“Do you want to go driving?”

He looked at me suspiciously, as he often does, my 15-year-old. There’s such a chasm of understanding between us these days, which I keep hearing, is all part of the growing-up program.

He has to push me away, and for good measure sigh at my every utterance. I, in turn, find myself morphing into a sitcom mom: nagging him to stop eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, to start his homework if he wants to go to college, to turn off that computer game. Where did the sweetness go, that deep connection we had for so many years?

Dangerous ways to spend time with my teen

So when I listened to Gever Tulley’s Ted talk (below) on dangerous things you should let your kids do, I was inspired. Kids’ worlds these days are so constrained and protected, Tuley said. Let them handle power tools, experiment with fire, use a knife, and drive. Take them for a spin in an empty parking lot, Tulley advised, adding that it’s perfectly legal to let even a younger child take to the wheel.

My son could use some risk-taking that doesn’t involve shooting zombies on a screen. But more than that – and I confess my son was right to be suspicious - I had a convert reason to lure him with promises of driving an actual car. The truth is that these days, I’ll do almost anything to get him to spend time with me. Suggestions that always worked, watch Dr. Who or play Monopoly, are now met with a non-committal shrug.

Counting the Saturdays you have left

This blogger figured out the number of Saturdays you’ll get to have with your child until he turns 18. If you start from the day your baby is born, that's 936. When you look at it in cold, hard numbers, it’s sobering because it’s really not that many, particularly since that’s not counting sleep-away camps, sleepovers, and weekends at Grandma's house. But what parents of toddlers don’t know, because they’ve forgotten their own teen years, is that teens don’t spend weekends with their parents. 

Once they hit their teen years, with rare exception, say goodbye to those seemingly endless weekend days when they’ll tag along with you on whatever adventure you’re inspired to take. (On her birthday, my colleague’s three teens grudgingly agreed to go with her to the beach for the day. Once there, surrounded by sand, sun, and sparkling water, her son moaned, “Get me out of this hellhole.”)

Only a car will bring us closer

A parent of a teen needs to be inventive. Letting him drive a car might just bring us a few moments of closeness, if only because we’re sitting next to each other. We arrive at the parking lot, a farmers market that empties out by 4:00. It’s near sunset, we probably have an hour at the most. We buckle in, reversing roles as driver and passenger.

In minutes, he has it down, which makes sense because the things he’s good at – jazz piano and juggling – require a presence of mind, a mental and physical dexterity, that a good driver needs. He's so good I even let him spin in circles for a minute and we find ourselves cracking up together, doing something so illicit and unwise together. I praise his focus and concentration, and remind him that driving in an empty lot is the easy part. The challenge is when you get out on the road, where you’re relying on hundreds of thousands of other people to also be focused and careful. Most are, but it’s those few – people who are drunk, angry, unstable, or on their phone – you have to watch out for.

He’s actually listening to me., asking me questions. He even thanks me for taking him. I silently remark how rare these moments are anymore, when I get to teach him anything. I realize, too, that in letting him take the driver’s seat, I’m preparing for the time in three-and-a-half years that he’ll driving away, for good. That’s 160 Saturdays we have left. But who’s counting?





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Great post, Leslie. I love it when my kids think we're breaking rules in the name of fun. My uncle let me drive his Corvette in the Boeing parking lot when I was 12. One of my most vivid memories from that age.

I appreciate the spirit of this blog; that it's vital to create opportunities for moments of Connection with your adolescent kids, that you can be very creative in that effort, and that protecting your kids from anything with a tinge of risk is not a good long-term plan.

But I'd like to add a few driving-related comments.

I believe this sentence may be incorrect: "...it's perfectly legal to let even a younger child take to the wheel." Also, I've heard that doing do-nuts in a parking lot ("spin in circles") can be grounds for a "careless/reckless" ticket in MN, and that can be quite a big deal ($$$) in terms of car insurance.

Anybody interested in more relevant facts about teenage drivers can find some further surprising facts in a document called "3 Costly Mistakes Teen Drivers Make - that parents can prevent!" ... I'm not sure if I'm allowed to list a website in this comment, so I'll just suggest you search for that document name I mentioned, or for the name Mike Pehl, who is my colleague ... a really great guy ... a former crash investigator ... and someone who is truly working to keep everyone more safe on the roads.

@Kelly Cusick Thanks for your comment. I will look up the document you mentioned to find out what is safe and unsafe. And just to reassure you,the circles he spun were *really* wide and slow. I didn't find the exact document you mentioned, but found this by Mike Pehl: http://drivesafeblog.com/tag/traffic-collision/ - which is really helpful. I also found this blog about teen driving, which is excellent: http://autos.aol.com/article/teen-drivers-making-common-and-fatal-mistakes/

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