For most teenagers, the first real symbol of passage into adult status is a driver’s license. At the same time, recognize your child is truly growing up when she gets a driver’s license and is thus emancipated from dependence on parental taxi service. Access to the family car also gives your adolescent increased peer status: it elevates hanging out to a new level. Your adolescent can now get herself to activities, has new “power” within her group.
You can exercise some control over access to the car, over where your adolescent takes the car, and can withhold car privileges. But when she gets in the car and drives away, you have no real control over what happens, where, or with whom.
As with most areas of child development, parental involvement related to cars and access to cars begins long before your child is old enough to have a driver’s license. Parental attitudes toward cars are passed on to your child when he is quite young. Examine your own attitudes toward driving and owning cars, knowing these attitudes are, in large measure, passed on to your children.
You help your young child develop habits of appropriate or inappropriate behavior in cars. For example, placing emphasis on being reasonably quiet and sitting still, having seat belts fastened, being especially quiet in heavy traffic or dangerous situations, or the reverse – making a lot of noise, climbing around, ignoring seatbelts, and so on. Do you pay attention to driving or do you frequently turn around and talk with others? Do you eat or drink while driving or text or talk on your cell phone? Do you drive after drinking? Do you stay calm in emergencies? Is it important to obey speed limits and parking regulations? Do you pick up hitchhikers? How do you behave in an accident? If you want your teenager to be a responsible driver, you must start when he is quite young to help him develop appropriate attitudes and behavior.
Driver education starts before the teenage years. As a parent, you help your adolescent learn to drive just as you helped her learn to ride a bicycle, play games and follow rules, take turns and interact cooperatively, and so on. If your usual pattern is to be calm, reasonably firm, and persistent, helping her learn to drive will be similarly smooth. If your usual style is to become angry or authoritarian, or to give up, this will carry over into driving.
In most states, adolescents are required to take a formal driver education course. As your adolescent goes through driver training, all of the attitudes and standards developed over the years toward school apply. It is reasonable to set some minimal grade expectation for driver training. You might, for example, refuse to sign for your adolescent’s driver’s license unless she gets at least a B in driver’s education.
Giving and withholding driving privileges may be the last stronghold of parental authority. For instance, getting a driver’s license can be made contingent on doing well at school, being cooperative at home, and generally following the rules and meeting your expectations. If there are behavior difficulties, you might say, “You cannot get a driver’s license until your behavior has improved for at least two months.” Getting a driver’s license then becomes the payoff for better behavior and a more cooperative attitude. You also can temporarily take away the driver’s license and driving privileges. You can regulate (to some extent) when your adolescent is allowed to drive. But be careful – this can be overdone.
Teenage drivers generate a lot of anxiety in some families. It is still true, however, most teenagers are careful and responsible drivers, follow the rules, and behave themselves. Nonetheless, teenagers make mistakes or have accidents or behave inappropriately once in a while. This is all part of learning. If these problems occur, stay calm and resist impulsive reactions. Even a serious accident or rule violation is not, by itself, reason for alarm. If you talk with your adolescent about the problem and let her know it is serious, you can rely on her good judgment to assure the problem does not come up again. If problems do recur with any frequency (even minor problems), you can exercise some direct influence over driving privileges and in this way, keep things from getting out of hand and help your adolescent avoid bad driving habits.