Excessive Maneuvering: A Parenting Lesson for Drivers

While Drivers’ Ed teachers may frown upon “excessive maneuvering,” it’s generally the name of the game when it comes to getting through life.

Last week, I dropped my son off at school at the appointed hour before the start of his winter band concert. Predicting a crowded and a treacherous exit following the performance, I located the platonic ideal of a parking spot near the lot’s narrow exit and backed my minivan into the space.

It was already dark outside, and my spatial awareness talents lag behind other blessings I’ve been granted (in other words, I’m really pathetic at parking). It took me a few tries to swing my large car in between the narrow and barely visible lines of the parking space, but eventually, I triumphed and wedged my car in evenly, driving in reverse.

When I shared my parking experience with my daughter, who is deep in the throes of her drivers’ education training, she informed me that I had broken a cardinal directive in the world of driving.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked her.

“Excessive maneuvering,” she announced. “In Drivers’ Ed class, they teach us ‘no excessive maneuvering.’”

I love an elegant metaphor, and truisms regarding driving often reflect life wisdom. Stay in your own lane. To prevent communication breakdowns, use your indicator lights so that other drivers know what to expect. Vision is impaired at twilight, just as it’s hard to see clearly when moving forward in the hazy moments of life transitions. Take care of your vehicle, and it will take care of you.

This aphorism about excessive maneuvering, however, gave me pause, as it seemed to eschew putting in extra work for a task that might be challenging. Valuing our American can-do spirit and our optimism, we have been taught to work tirelessly to achieve our goals.

In medicine, don’t we exhaust every avenue before “giving up” on a patient’s treatment? We have been raised to be “little engines that could” and repeat the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” until we successfully and tenaciously climb over difficult terrain.

For many of us raising children, we are all about the excessive maneuver. As parents, we may judge our own merit on the lengths we go to shape our children’s life experiences – micromanaging play dates, writing letters to principals asking for the just right homeroom teacher, planning a Bar or Bat Mitzvah early in the season so that we can control the guest list and the projected reciprocated invitations.

We judge ourselves harshly if we do not take every imaginable course of action to help our children find academic and social success.

I thought about “excessive maneuvering” when learning that a student can sign up to take a college admissions test up to 12 times. I thought about “excessive maneuvering” when I heard a friend describe how she planned to juggle her children’s weekend schedule, complete with soccer games, lacrosse, two Bar/Bat Mitzvah invitations, a birthday party, and a sleepover. I thought of “excessive maneuvering” when filling out a detailed form for my son, whose fifth grade class will be going on a four-day excursion to Philadelphia, and the teachers ask for roommate requests and for names of children who might be better off sleeping a few rooms (or even states) away.

While teaching our teenagers to drive, we may favor efficiency and accuracy over changing lanes and struggling too much with a parking job. When operating large machines like cars, extra maneuvers bring additional risks for collisions and complications.

My extra efforts in parking paid off after the concert. I easily and safely made my exit from the lot teeming with cars and impatient drivers. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to make the additional effort, to make the extra phone calls, to add a measure of loving guidance, to open up opportunities for learning and achievement.

At other times, we need to follow the lessons learned in drivers’ education and temper our instincts to fix our children’s every problem or insert ourselves into every situation in their lives with our “excessive maneuvers.” Parenting, like driving a car, requires constant vigilance, measured balance in behavior, and a certain amount of intuition regarding the behavior of other vehicles on the road.

Sometimes, we need to force ourselves to stay quietly in our lane, demonstrate patience behind the car that is stopped momentarily before a turn, and then move forward with respect for our fellow travelers, grateful for the light their cars’ beams shed on a dark road.