By: Sheila Gaudet
For many of us, one of the biggest transitional moments between childhood and adulthood, is getting our driver’s license. With a driver’s license comes a different degree of independence, responsibility, and (for the parent) concern. Thanks to my son’s 16th birthday a few weeks ago, this is the stage we are in.
Luckily for me, this isn’t my first rodeo. When I was living in Mississippi, my nieces could get their permit at 15 and their license 6 months later. Other than having to pass a very minimal test, there were no requirements for education or training. Since the girls were twins, it meant teaching both of them to drive. They were, and are, responsible young ladies, but it was still nerve-wracking. My favorite story was when they were driving my husband’s car and I was following. I was trying to figure out why every few minutes the car would take a slight jerk to one side. After careful observation, I couldn’t help but laugh. Due to the hairstyle of the moment, which involved some long, side-swept bangs, my niece had to keep tossing her head to one side to keep the hair out of her eyes. The car jerked every time she did it. Luckily, the girls evolved into decent drivers who have maintained a pretty good driving record over the last five years so that gives me hope as I embark on this adventure with my son.
Anthony has always shown pretty good motor skills, which I think helps. He has good reaction time and is comfortable driving “things.” He actually has more experience flying a plane (supervised). However, there is a lot more room for adjustment in the sky- no telephone poles, people, or other planes a few feet away. Imagine my shock and surprise when I started looking into the requirements for a license in Massachusetts. I knew he couldn’t get his learner’s permit until he was 16, which was just fine with me. I also knew he’d have to wait 6 months to get his license, also fine. What I didn’t realize was how much was expected of him in the way of formal instruction. I also didn’t realize how much was expected of me, both in the way of formal instruction and money.
Here in Massachusetts, a student driver has to pass a written test at the Registry to get their permit. Anthony did pass on his first try, despite a case of nerves. That was expected. Before he can get his license, though, he has to attend (and pay for) 30 hours of classroom instruction. We decided to get that out of the way early on. My theory is that learning the rules, watching videos, and understanding the laws can only help as he starts actually driving. For two weekends (including the recent MLK holiday), we were up and at class at 8 am until 2:30 pm. I wasn’t actually there, but I had to transport him. We still need to attend, together, a 2-hour class for parents. It’s scheduled for Valentine’s Day night. We are both pumped about that. He will still have to have something like 18 hours of formal driving education with an instructor and 12 hours of “observation.” This all costs money and it is not cheap! The cost for the whole process will be probably close to $1000. And, in the end, I’ll have one more thing to worry about!
In the meantime, we have started the “parent training” component on our own. This is the part where the student drives and the parent tries to guide calmly and patiently through various scenarios. When I was growing up, this was where my mother chain-smoked Virginia Slims, clutched the dashboard (and anything else she could reach), and periodically screamed out, “Don’t you see that truck!?!” I, in typical teenage fashion, would roll my eyes and say, “are you talking about the semi parked on the shoulder a half mile away? I’ve noticed it.” Needless to say, my father took over my driving instruction. This is the man who told me to “go faster” while on our way to a hockey tournament on a highway in northern NY- during a whiteout. His feeling was that as long as I could follow the rear lights on the semi ahead of us, there should be no problem with driving 75 mph, because “we have 4 wheel drive.” I tend to take an approach somewhere in between those extremes. So far, we are doing ok. There’s been no screaming and only a few semi-hairy moments where I reached over and gently nudged the steering wheel. Merging on the highways has been his scariest skill to learn, although we haven’t attempted parallel parking yet.
I find teaching teenagers to drive to be a good example of the whole parenting process. Sometimes they go too fast and you are sitting in the passenger seat, trying to apply the brakes. Sometimes their judgment is a little off and they need to be prompted to make a correction. Their favorite song comes on the radio and they get distracted, reaching to turn the volume up and taking their focus off the task at hand. Sometimes they are scared and nervous and it is my job as the parent to remain calm and reassuring, giving praise when things go right and helpful suggestions for next time. It requires a huge amount of trust to give up control. As a parent, I have some responsibility, but there are others who will also teach him things he needs to know. The goal, like growing up, is to give him the tools to “fly solo” and use the tricks, rules and judgment he acquires through this learning period. I think we’ll get there. I just hope that we are both ready when that day comes.