Monday, October 29, 2012

holding my breath: a tale of teen driving

Do you remember the first time you discovered the real meaning of the phrase, "flying down the road?"
From my perch in the back, I hung casually over the front seat, my elbows crooked up under me, my head swiveling back and forth between my older sister and her friend, David. As I did my best to look cool, David maneuvered the torpedo of a car up the hill of a narrow residential road near our house.  He leaned back like a man in control, his left arm extended casually to the top of the wheel, his right hand gesticulating its way through the laughter of our conversation.

At 14, my parents had granted me the much anticipated privilege of riding home from school with these worldly teenagers.  They knew David; he was a “nice boy.”  I caught my first giddy whiff of freedom as I laughed, probably too loudly, at his jokes on that day.  When we crested the hill and began to speed down the other side, I sat up straight on the edge of the green vinyl upholstry, both hands gripping the front seat for the leverage you need when you’re not wearing a seatbelt.  The big sedan harrumphed over the uneven road in that barely-touching-the-ground kind of way that only a big car can.  When I bounced so high I bumped my head on the roof of the car, we all hooted and hollered to the sky of invincibility.  We were flying!

Many years later, I watched Gareth ride his bike for the first time down a hill by our house.  His little red two-wheeler wobbled precariously as he picked up speed.  His wonky helmet sat cockeyed on his precious little head; his legs pedaled furiously.  If I could have seen his face, I’m sure it would have exuded pure exhilaration.  Me?  I clutched my hands to my chest and held my breath. 

Does any parent breathe while they’re doing this letting-go-thing?

I haven’t yet. 

On Friday, as I unloaded my tutor supplies from my van, an unfamiliar red car pulled up in the driveway.   “Who’s that?” I wondered as I observed a teenager behind the wheel.  The back door opened and out climbed Gareth, hauling his back pack behind him with an unmistakable swagger. 

I had not given permission for him to ride in cars with other teenagers, so I was unhappy that he’d done so without my permission.  I stuck to that line of commentary for the afternoon, reprimanding him for getting in the car when he knew I would disapprove.  But inside, I wondered if a new milestone had arrived. 
The school thinks so: last year the soccer coach required parents to sign a waiver allowing underclassman to drive to practices with upperclassmen (even though it was never necessary).  The state thinks so: many of Gareth’s friends have gotten their learner’s permits.  Gareth thinks so: obviously.  I guess the only remaining question is: what do Steve and I think? 

He is 15 years old and a sophomore in high school.  I was only 14 that first day I went “flying.”  Of course, I don’t ever want Gareth to careen down a hill like that.  But in the same breath, I don’t want to deny him that feeling I had: the independence, the invincibility, the sheer being.  Teens have to get that somehow. 

I also think it’s a little hypocritical for me to deny freedoms to Gareth that I enjoyed at his age.  I don’t really buy into the idea that we live in a more dangerous world.  We live in a different world with different threats, yes, but more dangerous?  I’m just not sure.  Only luck kept me safe on the day I went soaring down a narrow hill in a wide car.  The reality is that most of the time, we are lucky.  We’re lucky every time we come to the end of a day and crawl into the safety of our flannel sheets with our families intact. 

Rather than suffering more danger, perhaps we are just more fearful.  Perhaps we are less comfortable living in a world where bad things can happen on the day when luck doesn’t show up.  We try to guard against this by regulating danger away (banning kickball, tag and running(!) on the playground, or keeping our kids on a short leash in the neighborhood).  

I have tried my best to resist this trend, to give my kids more freedom--to raise “free range kids,” when I can.  I don’t really know how good I am at it, quite frankly, but I try.  It takes guts to let your kids walk to the pool and cross a four-lane street by themselves when the other moms say it’s too dangerous.  If something goes wrong, you will not only suffer loss; you will suffer judgment. 

Despite all this trying, when it comes to cars, I admit I’m a bit of a disaster.  Having been privy to what happens when luck takes a nap, I know how quickly the familiar insides of a car can turn alien with the aura of injury and death.   Those experiences have left me scarred, and I admit, I feel terrified by the idea of letting Gareth go out into the world in a car.  “Free-range” evokes sweet bucolic images of chickens and children running around harmlessly in a field full of dandelions, doesn’t it?  I don’t see a car anywhere in that picture. 

But perhaps I just never noticed it.  

I can’t keep Gareth locked up in a bird cage just because I feel afraid, right?  I’ve backed myself into this clich√© now, so I’m obligated to ask, is it time to “let him fly?”

 Ugh.  I think it is.

With a little trust and a lot of luck, I need to let him go.  He won’t get a free pass or anything, but when necessary, with kids we know, and with prior permission, it’s time to let Gareth, drum roll:  ride home from school with a teen driver.   It doesn’t sound like much, but I know it’s a slippery slope.  We’ll start with riding to and from school with upperclassmen.  Then it will be his friends driving, and then it will be him (he’s young for his grade).  Eventually he’ll be driving to friends’ houses on the weekends, and finally, he’ll simply be “going out.”  I’ll only think I know where he’s going. 

I can’t stop this progression.  I can only stand behind with my hands clasped to my chest, holding my breath. 


  1. Love the story....I remember the days of no seat belts and bouncing around in the back of a huge station wagon with my siblings , "the family car." You couldn't get hurt in one of those tanks, right? I've taught 3 of my 4 kids to drive. My last, 14, is waiting patiently for her moment behind the wheel. My first (a girl) was a little nervous, but I was WRECK. We probably spent more time in the parking lot than any DMV would recommend. My second(a boy), got in the car and was driving on the road the first day, a natural and my guard was a little bit let third (girl)didn't want to learn but we didn't give her a choice, being a family of 6, I needed as many drivers as possible to get everyone where they needed to be. Let's just say, our time together in the car was good material for a reality TV show. Three of my four on the road....hard to imagine and every time I hear a siren I quickly calculate in my head where each of my children are supposed to be at that moment. Late night dates and weekends I have come to cherish the sight of headlights coming up my driveway knowing they are home safe. A big part of growing up for kids, but an even bigger part of letting go for parents.

    1. you're not kidding! i think i'd be bald if i had to go through it 4 times! thanks for the comment :)