Wednesday, June 12, 2013

CAUTION: Student Driver

There are many aspects of parenting that are fun, exciting, rewarding even, but teaching your 16-year-old to drive is not one of them. It is necessary and important and I’m confident it will eventually be less of a nail-biter, but the first month is definitely a test of your parenting chops.

As I tooled around our town early this morning, my son at the wheel, I considered how we would survive the 60 hours of mandatory supervision required of all young drivers seeking a license in Pennsylvania. Thankfully, the learning curve has been steep for my child, but I still find myself holding my breath at intersections and concentrating on keeping my mouth shut as much as possible. As you can imagine, this is not easy for me.

It is not easy for my son either. The two of us have always gotten along well. But driving together is ferreting out some obvious conflicts. This child has always been exceptional at handling criticism. He almost always accepts it as constructive and rarely takes it personally. I’ve been impressed time and again by this quality of his. He didn’t get it from me.

Yet when that criticism comes from the passenger seat it makes him prickly. And more specifically, when it comes from his mother sitting in the passenger seat it is hard to take. He finds it much easier coming from his father. When we arrive home from a driving adventure and my spouse listens to my account, he assures me he has a similar experience riding shotgun. Yet my son prefers to drive with my husband, his feathers ruffling substantially less from his guidance than from mine.

In my son’s case at least, father does seem to know best. Which would be fine with me if said father was home this summer to log the requisite 60 hours. So my son and I are stuck with each other, negotiating new terrain in our relationship.

When you live in a town that is only about five miles wide, accumulating 60 hours can take some time. Each day I rouse my chauffeur out of bed to drive me to the post office, the grocery store, the bank. We are working towards that 60 hours in fifteen minute increments.

I try very hard to keep my voice neutral and to refrain from gasping or slamming my foot on the imaginary brake pedal on my side of the car. I think the basic problem is that I don’t like thrill rides. Roller coasters make me sick. I don’t even like the swing anymore, and I ride my brake down the big hills on my bicycle. Bottom line: I don’t like to be out of control.

I know my son is trying hard. I know he is smart and competent. I have no doubt he will be a fine driver. Trusting him behind the wheel at this stage of the game would probably be easier if we didn’t have a history. The Drivers Ed teacher took him on the interstate and allowed him to drive at 65 mph, merging into traffic, and passing other cars. He said he did fine. But this man has only known my child a year and all of that time was in a classroom. He doesn’t remember the many times we “lost” this child because he wandered away day dreaming. He has not argued with him over the necessity of feeding the dog every day.  Or explained why it’s a good idea to hang up the wet towel as opposed to allowing it to become a biology experiment.

Because we know our own children as the people who can forget to pick up the dish 30 seconds after they’ve been reminded, it’s hard not to carry that baggage in the trunk during driving lessons. I think the solution for this would be - swap kids! I’ll teach your teen to drive if you teach mine. If I was teaching a teenager to drive whom I knew only as the polite child who removes his shoes every time he comes to our house, plays patiently with the little brother, even offers to help carry in the groceries, maybe I could be more relaxed about the experience. And there are plenty of adults who know my son, not as the kid who leaves the milk out or lives with ear buds permanently attached to his head, but as the bright, creative, resourceful student that he is. It’s a perfect solution!

Sadly, I doubt anyone would take me up on this offer. The devil you know is always a better bet than the devil you don’t know.

Teaching my child to drive has changed the way I react to other drivers. Now, when I witness an odd behavior or a less than stellar decision I assume the driver is just learning. There are over 200 students in my son’s class which means odds are there are nearly that many student drivers on the streets of our town. Best to practice patience and drive defensively.

I think it would be a great boon to the student driver’s safety and other driver’s frustration levels if the Department of Motor Vehicles issued a large bright yellow “STUDENT DRIVER” magnet with each permit and required that it be displayed on the vehicle whenever the student is driving. That way, when you’re cruising up Constitution Avenue, as we were this morning with fifteen vehicles following us in a slow train, no one would be angry.

My son did notice his entourage and said, “I guess I should speed up, there’s a line.”

“You’re just fine,” I told him. Slow is good with me. He’ll go faster when he’s ready and hopefully by that time I’ll be ready.

We’ll survive this. Maybe a few gray hairs richer and hopefully still on good terms. It’s a rite of passage, not
Learning to drive the stick shift is next! 
just for the students, but for the parents.


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