As a parent, there’s one rite of passage I’d rather not have to go through.
It’s the one involving automobiles.
Everybody’s fine. Nobody’s hurt.
But my 17-year-old, who’s had his driver’s license for less than a month, got stuck in the mud after driving his sister to a church bonfire, somewhere deep in the woods where people normally go to cut down Christmas trees or start a survivalist camp.
As he alternately rammed the gears into drive and reverse in his attempts to get the unstuck, the van spun out of control. He crashed into a tree, which thankfully didn’t hurt him. But the impact imploded the front passenger side window, dented the passenger side door and crushed something called the stabilizer bar. Luckily, some sort of farm vehicle came along and pulled him out of the muck. And my son drove home in a daze, apparently listening to really loud classical music on the way – a behavior, in and of itself, worth writing home about.
We were all a bit shaken by this singular event.
And yet, as I’m beginning to learn every time I tell this story, such “singular events” involving automobiles and newbie drivers are not so uncommon, which is what, I suppose, makes them rites of passage.
My daughter’s former first-grade teacher, upon getting her driver’s license, remembers pulling into a four-way stop intersection a little too far. She realized her error and quickly sped into reverse, right into a school bus.
My own husband, set to get his driver’s license the next day, ended up the night before crashed into a stand of berry bushes in the woods – like father, like son – with smashed red berries all over his Dad’s Cutlass Olds.
Soon after I got my license, I backed into the mailman.
These events could be worse, representing irreparable tragedies. Instead, these stories represent minor problems but major educable moments for the new driver.
Now my humbled son knows what it feels like to think he’s got it all figured out, only to find out he really doesn’t. Now he knows what it feels like for a 2-ton vehicle to control him, instead of vice versa, which is the way he’s had it in his mind all these many months leading up to the nightly, “Dad, can I have the keys?”
Ah, but perhaps just as significant is the educable moment for parents, who can, and perhaps should, lapse into a litany of “shouldas,” right after the swearing:
“We shoulda made sure we had our cell phone and Chris had his while he was out with the car, which is, after all, the reason we agreed he could have a cell phone.”
“We shoulda made sure we took Emily to the bonfire instead of putting Chris in the position of having to take her.”
“We shoulda remembered that we told Chris he could only drive around town for the first few months, not out in the woods where off-road driving is even suspect.”
There’s an inherent assumption when you finally grant a child with privileges for which he has been preparing, that you can rest easy now. Ah, the potty training is complete. Go forth, my son.
The ironic fact of the matter is, with every privilege comes a whole new set of responsibilities, and not just for the child.
Graduating my son to big-boy underwear many years ago didn’t just mean freedom from diapers. It meant I had to be ever more alert, to cues suggesting, “I have to go potty.”
Handing over the keys to the car doesn’t just mean I get to celebrate the presence of another person in the house to go out for milk.
Handing over the keys to the car means I’d better be aware of every conceivable ramification of my trust.
Handing over the keys to the car means I’d better have that cell phone, not to mention my antenna and a brand new, well-thought-out set of rules, on high alert.
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