I started young – below the legal age. My parents knew what I was doing, but they didn’t mind. In fact, they encouraged me. It was normal to them, you see. They’d both grown up in the 60s in a rural area, where there wasn’t much for teenagers to do. In places like that, it’s just expected that by the time you’re 12 or 13, you’ll go out with some older kids to an isolated place and…
Learn to drive. Obviously.
Because it’s only natural, isn’t it? Our children grow up seeing vehicles all around them, and well before they’re physically or emotionally mature enough to have a go themselves, they take an interest in driving. They grow up assuming it’s something they will do one day.
I realize it’s possible to stretch a metaphor too far. For starters, when you’re learning to drive you’re never alone, so your first solo outing is a huge milestone. With sex, it’s rather the reverse. But just as a thought experiment, how would it be if we talked with our children about sex the same way we talk with them about driving?
We wouldn’t try to shut down their interest
Driving is for adults, but it isn’t dirty or shameful for a child to want to know about it. They can’t actually do it yet, but if they have questions, they can ask them without making anyone uncomfortable.
We would answer questions when asked
“Mummy, why do we put gas in the car?”
“Well, the thing is…um…sometimes the car feels a little bit, uh, tired, and it wants some kind of a…a drink. So…oh, look! A cat! Look at the cat! Now, who wants some chocolate? La la la!”
My technical knowledge about cars is limited, but I do my best to answer questions accurately. Maybe “the car needs energy to be able to move, and it gets that energy from gas.” I might even throw in a comment about how “some vehicles use petrol and some use diesel or electricity,” you know, because I’m broadminded like that, and I don’t want my children to believe that the way our family lives is the only possible option.
If my two-year-old asked what the different pedals do, I wouldn’t draw a complete diagram of the internal combustion engine (even if I could), but I would give him the information he had asked for in a way he could understand: “This one makes it go faster, and this one makes it slow down.”
And if I couldn’t answer his question, or I didn’t know how to pitch it at his level, I’d simply say, “I can’t answer that right now, but we can go and find a book that might be able to explain it a bit better than I can.”
We would call things by their proper names
Give a child some pictures of cars and see how many of the bits he can name: engine, gear stick, rear view mirror.
Any euphemisms? Any made-up words that nobody outside that child’s family can understand? Almost certainly not, and why would there be? These things have names, and we aren’t afraid to say them out loud.
We would teach them how to do it safely and well
My children aren’t ready to start driving yet. Not only do they need to grow up physically in order to reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel, they will also need greater psychological maturity to make the complex judgements involved.
To get from a toddler making “brrm brrm” noises with a toy truck to a teenager driving alone for the first time will take plenty of information, education, and support – not to mention a bit of practice in a safe environment. For a toddler, it’s enough to know that he has to wear a seat belt to keep him safe. But by the time he’s driving alone, I’m going to want to make sure he has a lot more information than that.
We would keep the conversation going as they got older
My oldest isn’t at driving age yet, so I’m guessing here, but I’m pretty sure that the first few times she heads for the door with a car key in her hand, I’m not going to wave her off without asking a few questions: Where are you going? Who are you going with? Have you got everything you need?
I know I won’t be able to resist throwing in a few words of advice, too: Drive safely. Use your judgement. If other people encourage you to do something you don’t feel happy with, just remember that you are in charge.
At least the first few times she goes out on her own, I’m going to want to talk to her afterwards. Was everything okay? Did anything happen that you’d like to talk about? I won’t make her tell me every detail, but I’ll want to check in with her, and I’ll be there to listen if she needs me to. If things go wrong, I want her to know that I’ll offer support without anger or judgement.
We would be worried about them, but wouldn’t stop them
We are understandably concerned about the physical risk to our children. Beyond that, driving represents a stage in their growing up. A child’s early years are bounded by her parents’ decisions, but the day comes when the child gets into a car and heads off without an adult to guide and supervise. All her parents can do is remember what they have done to prepare her for this moment, trust that it will be enough, and let go. She’s the driver now.
Some of my anxiety about my children getting in the driver’s seat comes from knowing exactly what kind of mistakes they could make, because I made some of them myself. I also heard the horror stories of my friends’ worst experiences.
As a teenager starting to drive independently, I didn’t take it very seriously although it was scary. When younger, we tend to think we’re immortal, or at least that we’ll somehow leap unscathed out of any trouble we might get into. With many years of driving behind me, I have a much stronger sense now than I did then of the potential seriousness – the real and irreversible impact that any driver could have on another person’s life.
It is through driving that I’ve come to realize how much of a responsibility it is to be a driver. I will try to convey this to my children as well as I can, perhaps using some carefully selected and edited anecdotes about errors of judgement I have made.
After that, I will have to let them live their own lives, mistakes and all, just as I did.
We would want them to have what we have
I’m an adult now, and I drive, and I appreciate what it adds to my life. Thanks to experience, I know just how great driving can be. Is it weird to hope that my children will know that pleasure in their adult lives, too?