“The voice in our child’s head” – Thursday, February 2, 2017

Our children grow and develop each day, but their progress is far from steady. Instead, it’s punctuated by a series of milestones or “firsts,” many of which both open doors to further growth and cause a shift in our parenting techniques and strategies. A baby takes her first steps, and we soon realize that we must keep a closer eye on her whereabouts. Our children’s first day of school comes with the realization that they will now be spending half of their waking hours with peers and adults who we barely know, so we choose carefully, and we aim to get involved. And then there’s the threshold that our son Will just crossed – obtaining a piece of paper from the state of North Carolina that allows him to operate a motor vehicle.

As a warning to the majority of you who have yet to experience this milestone as a parent, it opens a dam, ushering in a flood of emotions. Pride? Absolutely. Relief at the thought of less errand running? Sure. But those are just part of the mixed bag.

Starting with the obvious, I worry for his safety. Insurance rates are astronomical for male drivers under 25 for only one reason: they are based on statistics. Along these lines, I was interested to read a summary report of the National Young Driver Survey, entitled “Parenting Styles and Teenage Driving,” which appeared in Pediatrics. More than five thousand high schoolers were asked to rate their parents’ style as: authoritative (high support; high rules/monitoring), authoritarian (low support; high rules/monitoring), permissive (high support; low rules/monitoring), or uninvolved (low support; low rules/monitoring). Compared with the “uninvolved” group, teens with authoritative parents were half as likely to have been in a crash, 71% less likely to drive when intoxicated, half as likely to speed, and twice as likely to use seatbelts. While correlation doesn’t necessarily equate with causation, there are clearly positive outcomes associated with parents paying attention and making rules, while still listening to their children.

Statistics aside, Will’s safety behind the wheel is only part of the equation. A license, in the purest sense, means independence and freedom. Granted, Will’s license is provisional. For now, either Carrie or I must be in the car, so we have a year to warm up to the concept. Soon enough, however, he won’t need to rely on us to get around. I have no doubt that, when it comes to his driving, we will constantly negotiate the where, when, and with whom, but there’s no denying the significance of this step toward adulthood.

Faced with this milestone, I enjoyed reading Perri Klass’ piece in the New York Times earlier this week, which artfully frames this transition. Given that Klass resides in New York, it wasn’t his son’s license, but rather his needing to take the subway (alone) to school that opened the door. Klass reflects, “The long arc of this parental negotiation is about losing, gracefully, over time.” Perhaps “graceful” is a nod to the authoritative, high-rules and high-support, parent. Even when we say NO, it’s temporary. “We’re slowly and thoughtfully negotiating a time lapse surrender, a handover of increasing power and independence.”

Klass refers to a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” Knowing that, in the end, our children’s safety hinges on their ability to make sound decisions, we walk this line, desperately wanting skinned knees, yet not anything worse when behind the wheel. We supervise, we restrict, we make “stupid” rules, knowing that there’s a balance to this game, and the line of scrimmage moves with each passing day and month. In the end, no matter our style, our children will eventually make their own choices for one simple reason. They’ll be adults one day. At that point, we simply hope to be what Klass calls “the voice in our child’s head.”