The problem with parenting books and magazines is that they front-load all the information. There are hundreds of books and magazine articles dealing with parenting the infant, toddler and elementary child. The literature, the preparation, for parenting the tween and teen is thin and scant.
For instance, no one, absolutely no one, prepared me for the terror involved in handing over the car keys to one’s teenage son. My oldest son, Jackson, has his permit. Before he’s given his license, he must complete 50 hours of supervised driving.
This is a wonderful rule in theory. Our teens need maturity and experience before we allow them to go solo. But in practice, this means 50 hours of me clutching at my seat belt in the passenger’s seat, shouting “Slow down! You’re veering into the bike lane. Red light! Red light!”
“Mom,” Jackson has told me more than once. “You’re scaring me. I know what I’m doing.”
The truth is, Jackson is a completely competent driver. He’s been waiting for this moment nearly his entire life. When he was 6, I asked Jackson what he wanted to learn in the first grade.
“All I really want to learn,” he drawled, “is how to drive a car.”
And he’s really good at it. He follows all the rules to a T, quoting verbatim from the driving manual, which I suspect he’s memorized.
So what is my problem? Learning to drive in a college town is not the easiest experience. The university district, where we live, is a beehive of activity. The drive from our house to the high school is exactly four minutes of unmitigated peril. The street is about 5 feet wide. Parked cars fling open their doors at unexpected times. College students jaywalk constantly, while bikers and skateboarders weave around and through the mayhem. Students particularly like to bike in the rain, at night, wearing black and no reflective gear.
You couldn’t create a simulation more terrifying than this. It’s like a real-life game of Frogger. Every time I get from point A to point B in one piece, it feels like I’ve jumped 10 levels. (Cue the arcade music!)
Perhaps my fear comes from my deep-seated distaste for driving, and cars and high velocities. The first time I set foot behind a wheel I got the brake and accelerator mixed up and plowed the family minivan through a 10-foot fence around my high school stadium. We laugh about it now (actually, we laughed about it then. My mom and I laughed until we cried, right there, stuck in that fence), but the emotional scars run deep.
When it comes right down to it, it’s the other drivers I distrust. Jackson can follow all the rules, and there will still be people who run red lights, pull out in front of him, tailgate, text while driving and bike without reflectors.
It occurred to me the other night, as Jackson drove home from piano lessons late at night while I clung, white-knuckled, to the door handle, that this moment is absolutely a metaphor for the entire parenting experience as our children transition to adulthood.
I have to trust that all I’ve taught Jackson up to this point will be sufficient. I can try to delay the moment when I hand over the keys to my teenage child who is expected to operate a 4,000-pound machine at the unseemly speed of 60 miles per hour.
But really, the only way he is going to learn is with my willingness to let him sit in the driver’s seat and practice, practice, practice. I can guide and correct (veer left!) and set a good example (Mom, you didn’t come to a complete stop. The manual says …)
But I have no control, in the end, over his choices. I have no control over the choices of the thousands of other drivers barreling their way down the highway.
All I can do is give a hug of encouragement, tell Jackson, “you’ve got this,” strap in tight, and go for the ride of my life.