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Shifting Gears: What Letting My Teenager Take the Wheel Taught Me About Parenting

Teen + driver's license = new worries, new rules and lessons in letting go

Published on: November 18, 2016

teenage driver with new license

When I was a teenager, a driver’s license equaled freedom. The same was true for my husband; he still recalls how excited he was to get the keys to the car. So when our oldest came of age and admitted she didn’t want to learn to drive, we were stunned. We’d assumed she would be as eager as we were. But Mia wasn’t; in fact, she was scared to learn how.

The thing is, I wanted my teen to start driving. It would help me out with the “who needs to be where when” juggling act of my three kids. Plus, the music school where she interned had hinted at a paid position if she got her license. Most importantly, however, Mia driving would allow her to participate in more activities, namely youth theater.

Our geographical area offers excellent youth theater programs, but none are less than 45 minutes from home. Logistically, there was just no way I could drive her round trip twice a day for rehearsals. It wouldn’t be fair to ask her siblings to give up their activities so that I could ferry her back and forth and so I told Mia that if she wanted to do theater, she’d need to get herself there and back. And guess what? Wanting to act and sing trumped her anxiety.

Throughout Mia’s driver’s ed course, for which she reluctantly signed up, I spent a lot of time calming her fears. She was already worried about operating a vehicle; the gory films show during class of accidents caused by drinking or texting didn’t help. And when the time came for her to actually get behind the wheel with an instructor onboard, she was overly cautious. We actually had to tell her that driving too slow can be as dangerous as driving too fast. 

I took a deep breath and prayed for the best.

After many hours of practice and nearly as many tears, Mia did it: She got her license. But she was still a nervous driver, so my husband and I encouraged her to take the car out alone on short jaunts to the store, music lessons or a friend’s house to help build her confidence. Having her driving around town alone didn’t scare me; I was too busy reassuring and cheering her on.

Six months after she got her license, Mia got a part in a musical at a theater about 30 miles away. Before rehearsals began, we drove the route to the rehearsal site several times together; then, she drove herself with one of us leading her. She was ready.

I, however, wasn’t. When the time came for Mia’s maiden long-distance voyage, I started questioning our decision. Was I crazy to let her drive so far? On a major highway? At night?

What if she got into an accident? What if she blew a tire? What if she got lost? What if her phone died and she couldn’t call us? Worst-case scenarios haunted me. “She’s a good driver,” my husband reminded me. “She’s qualified. Both of us drove on highways at night at her age.” Eventually, that calmed me down (sort of) and I decided that we had already committed to this. I would just have to prepare her as well as I could.

First, I added Mia to our AAA account and put the roadside assistance number in the glove compartment. I got her a car phone charger so she could charge her phone if needed. I upgraded her phone so that she could use a maps app if she got lost. I showed her where the insurance and registration cards were in the car and explained what to do if pulled over. We discussed how to get back on the highway if she missed her exit.

Then, I took a deep breath and prayed for the best. Oh, and insisted she text me THE MINUTE she arrived at her destination. EVERY SINGLE TIME.

One time as she was leaving for rehearsal, it started raining hard. I offered to take her, you know, just in case. Mia smiled. “Mom, we live in Seattle. I’m going to have to learn to drive in the rain sometime.” And so the student becomes the master.

Do I still worry? Of course. I’m afraid she’ll get too comfortable and talk on the phone or text. The couple of times she’s forgotten to tell me when she reached her destination, I’ve called her. And I know, somewhere deep in my mind, that this isn’t just about driving, that a driver’s license is just another step that takes her further away from me. No matter what I’ll never stop worrying about her. That, after all, is what parents do best.

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