My daughter recently turned 16, and if you were ever a teen yourself, you know exactly what that means…driving. I can’t say that it seems like only yesterday that I was changing her diapers, because it doesn’t. Let’s be honest – It takes a lot of parenting to get your kids to high school, and they’re not easy years to forget. So to me, the timing of this actually feels right. She’s quite bored at home these days, she’s always in dire need of something from CVS, and Chipotle keeps her order on file. But that’s the big picture. The smaller picture doesn’t feel quite as comfortable.
For all of those who haven’t yet experienced this rite of passage, there’s no preparation for it. Your kid literally goes from not driving to driving, as long as there’s one parent in the car. All they have to do is pass a little computerized test at the DMV, and they can get in the car and drive you home, like mine did. From then on, whenever you need to go somewhere, you have a built-in chauffeur. But you’re not just a passenger in this minivan-turned limo; you have become a driving instructor. And what does becoming a driving instructor for your own kid mean? It means horror. Horror because the passenger side does not have a brake pedal. Horror because of left turns, right turns, straight-aways, crowded parking lots, pedestrians, bicycles, yellow lights, roadwork, highway merging, and undeveloped frontal lobes.
Keep in mind that before you even get into the car, your teen already knows more than you. You’re totally uncool, and your countless years of experience behind the wheel are only marginally important. You’ll flinch, gasp, hold your breath, clutch at the door, slam on an imaginary brake pedal, and even raise your voice at times. Okay, maybe more than a few times. There will be close calls and brushes with fate, but only experience can make a teen driver a great driver, so you’ll employ your yoga breaths and keep on going.
As part of my daughter’s driver’s education program, I attended a mandatory parent session. We watched an eye-opening movie about the differences between teen and adult drivers, leaving me both educated and terrified. According to scientific research, a partially developed frontal lobe and lack of road experience is a highly dangerous combination, the evidence of which we see in the news way too often these days.
So, what’s a parent of a 16 year old to do? Well, if yours is one of those teens who’s in no hurry to drive, then you can relax for now. But if your teen isn’t driving, he or she will eventually get into a car with one who does, forcing you to consider the experience, judgement, and frontal lobes of kids other than your own. And that’s even worse.
I find solace in the fact that so many of my contemporaries post pictures on Facebook of their grinning teens proudly holding driver’s licenses. I figure if they allow their mushy-brained 16-year-olds to operate motor vehicles, I’m probably ok to allow mine as well. And, according to the driver’s education instructor, waiting until age 18 provides very little additional growth of the frontal lobe, so delaying the process by 2 years won’t help. (the frontal lobe is fully developed by age 25 – yikes!)
So here I sit in the passenger seat, as my beautiful little baby with the squishy thighs drives me to Stop and Shop. I take her phone, turn down the music, and hold my breath through left hand turns. I offer positive reinforcement, constructive criticism, and an occasional yelp. I breathe deeply and do my best to ensure that she becomes the safest and smartest driver possible, and she’s doing great. It’s a crazy world out there, both on and off the streets, so buckle up, my love, and have a great ride.
Abby Helman Kelly is the owner of Gluten-Free Connecticut and Gluten-Free New England. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Boston University and a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Loyola University Maryland. Abby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.