Monday, June 22, 2009

Teenage Car Traumas: A Dad Loses Control


Nobody told me it would be like this. Sure, I knew that when my teenage son got his license and we put together enough pennies to get him something with four wheels and a running (hopefully) engine, that I would lose a certain amount of control over the boy’s movements. After all, up to this point, I was the official Dad Taxi, responsible for carting the boy to and from football practice, and the job, and his friend’s house, and even to and from the mall or the movies with his girlfriend of the moment.

I complained bitterly about my taxi duties to anyone who would listen:

I’ll be glad when this boy can drive himself because I’m tired of being the taxicab!

Just when I thought I could rest for the evening, the boy needs another ride somewhere!

Little did I know how much and how quickly I would yearn for the Dad Taxi days. With stunning rapidity, I have discovered how much my life has changed with a teenager who drives. I knew in an abstract way that his mobility would cause me worry because of all those horrible stories and statistics of teenage driving fatalities. We live in a county in Georgia that has horribly deficient, practically non-existent public transportation, with no plans that I’ve ever heard about to rectify the situation anytime soon. So for a teenager to hold a job or do anything outside of the house besides travel to and from school, there has to be a car involved. This necessity leads to the troubling inevitability of teenagers having accidents. It seems like every year, a teenage boy (or girl, but it’s usually boys) at one of the local high schools perishes in a crash. So there’s always that worry in the back of the mind. But that’s not even what I’m talking about. What I didn’t expect was how disconcerting it would be for me to know that the boy is out there in the world, doing whatever it is that he is doing from moment to moment, and there’s barely a damn thing I can do about it.

At first I was Inspector Gadget, peppering him with questions about his movement, checking the football practice schedule on the school website several times a week, frequently eyeing his work schedule at the pool where he’s a lifeguard, trying to catch him doing something he’s not supposed to be doing or being somewhere he’s not supposed to be. I even caught him lying a couple of times, much to his chagrin and embarrassment—his boy told him that I was like a CIA agent. But recently something dawned on me: no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible for me to know where he was and what he was doing every second of the day. And with that realization came another one: if I couldn’t know what he was doing at all times, I was going to have to chill out a little about his whereabouts or else give myself a stroke. I was going to have to have a certain amount of trust in the idea that we did a pretty good job raising him, instilling values and judgment and decision-making skills, and from this point, just weeks from his 17th birthday, it was pretty much up to him to make his way safely in this world.

Of course, I was haunted by the memories of how much my life changed when I got wheels as a teenager—memories of things I did that I shouldn’t have been doing. My momma might be reading this, so I won’t go into further detail. (It was nearly 30 years ago, so I’m sure I would get all the details wrong. Okay, Ma?) But I guess I turned out alright after all, and those teenage days, even the crazier ones, all contributed mightily to my path and the choices I came to make over the years.

So as I watch him load his lineman’s bulk into his Jeep and take off with a wave in my direction, I know that we have crossed a major milestone in the parent-child relationship. Without control over his movements, I have relinquished a great deal of my authority. It is now in his hands, the power to make his own path. All I can do is sit back and watch. And breathe another deep sigh of relief with the sound of his squeaky brakes pulling back into the driveway.

About Our MBB Contributor:
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of six books, and the editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Odyssey Couleur.

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  1. Nick,
    The loss of control is certainly a scary thing when it comes to parenting and I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum with a 2 year old. But I had a similar feeling when I left her with her 23 year old cousin for 24 hours when I went out of town.
    Now granted the 23 year old is a college grad living at home with her 50+ parents for the summer, but I still felt like and proceeded to check in numerous times to make sure everything was cool.
    Its amazing how much more dangerous the world becomes when your children are loose in it. Uncontrollable situations seem limitless. So I put my faith in God and the sense he gave me that got me this far (along with the village, well really a country of folks that raised me).
    I pray hard every night, well all the time that my child is blessed with God's grace and the type of oversight I got growing up from people who I didn't even know cared about me as much as they did.
    And I try my best not to think about any of the stupid and thoughtless things I did from age 16-35. If I close my eyes really tight and shake my head really hard, those things go away - just for a minute.

  2. Happy Father's Day Nick!

    We have not approached this yet, our oldest in nine. But, you better believe I think of teenagers driving a lot! Like you, I was not always where I told my grandparents I was going to be either, LOL!

    It's a very scary thought to think of my son driving at any age. Personally, I think they should raise the age one is allowed to drive to 18. I wouldn't be opposed to the age of 21 either!

  3. I'm about a year away from experiencing this rite of parenthood. Currently, it's something that I'm looking forward to. But being the helicopter mom that I am, I know that I'm going to have quite a few issues to deal with. It'll be very interesting to see how my son handles his freedom and how I handle my lack of control over his whereabouts.

  4. This is a bittersweet and worrisome moment for a parent. My boy became an instant semi-adult with the purchase of his vehicle. Yes, we stayed up waiting for his return, called frequently, took the car keys, checked under the seats and glove compartment, had nightmares, and etc., but this car was his gateway to indepedence.

    At some point, hubby stopped worrying as much, but I didn't. I was afraid of my worse fears including jailed, injured, or killed. I learned to pray harder and a little more frequently for his protection.

    He's almost 20 and will be starting his 3rd year of college this fall. It will be get better. Keep up the good work, Dad.

  5. Happy Father's Day! Wow... my parents need to read this!! I'm the oldest and they're raising two more teenagers right now and have two more kids to go!

    It was food for me to read too, even though I don't have kids, what a great perspective to have. I turned out ok... Mistakes and all, but that's what makes us into the people we are. We want to help them, but we can only do so much!

  6. I totally feel you on this one. I said the same thing to my boys, "I 'NEED' you to drive" Now that they are driving, yes, we can become a bag of nerves.

    In fact, my oldest boy's car died on him. So, I let him drive the car which meant my second son had to drive the van. I never loan out the van. I felt I had no choice in order to keep systems rollin. I'm at home doing child care. THey needed to get to and from work (of course, and run with friends in between which is NOT a need).

    Soon after my oldest has the car, the front tire blows on the freeway. Yes, he is fine but he was surely upset. Cost me $104. A few weeks later, while at a poetry listening gathering, someone breaks out the back window and steals the radio. Not worried bout the radio, but had to put cardboard over the window till I can get it fixed.

    In the meantime, my second son, driving the van, is backing out of a parking space at Circle K. Keep in mind, this is a full size Ford Econoline 150. It's huge! The PT Cruzer was in his blind spot. Yes, he backed into her. My insurance, I'm sure will be off the scale. He's only been driving a few months licensed. All together, he's been driving almost a year.

    My daughter, the oldest of my four kids, she had her share of accidents when she first started driving too. She has 3 accidents in 3 months. I took the car and kept it in the garage for over a year! Once she proved to me she was ready for it, I put it in "her" name and gave it back to her. After another year, the car threw a rod and the car was history, while we were in it! She then, established her own credit and bought herself a 2004 Corolla and is finally doing well at age 21.

    As Mamas, we just gonna worry. That's what we do whether it's driving and we dropped them off or whether they are driving. It's not always our child we worry about, sometimes it is what is around them that we worry about. We just never stop worrying about our babies.


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