Who’s driving this thing, anyway?


          “I should be getting out of my child’s life?” demanded a perplexed mom. “But he’s only eleven!”

“Wait a minute…” I wanted to say. Clarification is needed.

Let’s consider the whole notion of the young person’s taking over his or her own life. It’s a little like when my daughter was learning to drive. The summer she was fourteen, we were driving across Texas and New Mexico on our way to Colorado. “Hey Mom,” she exclaimed. “How about I drive? The road is flat; there are no cars around. No one will know I’m driving without a license.” I wouldn’t agree to do that but we did make an arrangement where she sat in the driver’s seat with me and steered, with my hands still loosely around the steering wheel, while my feet remained on the accelerator and brake. Many a mile we passed as she happily “drove.” The following year, she was fifteen with a new learner’s driving permit. That summer, she sat in the driver’s seat and I sat on the edge, her feet on the accelerator and brake, my hands still loosely on the steering wheel, just in case! As the years went by, I relaxed in the passenger seat, still watchful… until the day when, an accomplished, experienced driver, she headed off to California and college by herself!

In a similar way, when our kids enter early adolescence, we begin to let them “steer” their lives while we watch closely, adjust the steering or speed as necessary for them not to crash. As we sense their improving ability to manage their lives, we back away, allowing them to drive. If ever we sense a wavering or a bumpy stretch in their road, we move closer, maybe even place our hands back on the wheel until we know they’re safe to resume control. We remain close enough to coach them through the rough parts, allowing them to manage, encouraging them along.

Heaven forbid that they drive off onto the shoulder, much less go careening down a hill. Then we may need to resume driving for a bit, getting them back onto the path, allowing them to return to driving when they, and we, feel confident. Together, we know that their goal, and ours, is for them successfully to drive their own lives. The  moment we feel confident they can, we allow them to do so.

We can share this metaphor with them, helping them to understand we want out of managing their lives as badly as they want us out. Further, we can explain that we need to know enough details of their lives to be assured that they are managing okay. We’ll be watching, coaching, sometimes setting limits because we, like them, do NOT want them to crash and burn! This is why we ask questions, this is why we observe how they’re doing. Not to eliminate the fun, but to be sure their lives continue motoring along safely and decently.

So, by way of review, the three jobs of parents are :

To do what we can to keep them safe;

To instill in them a broad and specific sense of decency;

To exit their lives as soon as possible.

When your frustrated teens grumble, “Whose life IS this anyway?”
there really is only one answer: theirs!