A step along the path of life: The new car on your 16th birthday

Along the journey of life there are many paths, many doors, many side trips and some major milestones that mark significant achievement and can change the path/journey in significant ways.  Getting my first car was definitely a defining moment in my life (even though I didn’t appreciate the significance at the time).  Yesterday, with the benefit of 36 years of hindsight, I set my own daughter on the road with her own car.  The experience has caused my monkey mind to go into overdrive, some of which I share here.

Yesterday my daughter Finn turned 16.

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For the past year she we have been practicing driving, talking about driving, reading books on driving, taking courses on driving, and generally obsessing about the day Finn can drive herself around.  That day came yesterday.  2016-05-29 12.37.50

Getting a drivers license and your own car has got to be a high order American coming of age ritual.  It is a big step up on the road to independence.  It lies on a foundation of trust, learning, responsibility and achievement.  As a parent the decision to provide a car required contemplation (is she ready?) and not an insignificant amount of mourning (no more time together driving around town).   Finn earned the car through hard work and deserves all the freedom and responsibility that comes with it.

Martin Tobias at 16 was not ready for his own car.  While I doubt my parents put as much existential angst or contemplation into the issue as i have given the demands of 6 other kids around the house and far less money to go around, looking back, it was a very good thing that the 16 year old Martin Tobias did not get a car.  I was rebellious, irresponsible, boundary pushing, and generally an unhappy kid.  I had already been in the hospital three times from thrill seeking bicycle accidents.  As high school graduation loomed large and all my friends already had their college plans locked down, a stark reality hit me.  If I didn’t get my shit together I would be working in the damn pizza parlor my whole fucking life. I got my shit together.  Just before heading off to college I invested my pizza cook savings into a $300 1972 Ford Galaxie 500.  I loved that car because it was mine.  I was ready for that responsibility.

What does it mean exactly to “being ready for your own car” ?  My criteria include:

  •  A demonstrated history of responsible decisions. (demonstrated self regulation)  Choosing to do the homework instead of hang out with friends.  Saving money instead of spending it all. Ability to eat only one piece of cake.
  •  Significant attention to detail.  Driving is all about attention and pattern recognition.  80% of collisions are caused by driver inattention.  Even without the distractions of music, texting (1 in 4 accidents), et al, can you pay attention to details when necessary?
  • Ability to take on part of the financial and logistical responsibility.  When you spend your own hard earned money (job or allowance) on something you take better care of it, reinforcing responsibility.  Saving for a car was the #1 reason I got a job in high school.
  • An absence of clearly dangerous behavior traits.  If your child has problems with drugs or alcohol or depression or has clear impulse control issues, wait on the car.  You do not “owe them a car” because their friends got one. You owe it to them when they are ready, or when they make themselves ready.

Now I know many parents don’t put this much contemplation into what the car at 16 means in life. Plenty of parents are just happy to get the kids out of their hair and get more of their own time back.  But 16 is two years before most kids head off to college (a top 3 milestone) and definitely the beginning of the end of childhood.  How do we recognize, honor and note that transition in our lives?  With the decline of traditional religious adulthood rituals (Bat Mitzvah, Quinceanera, etc.) how do we do this?  Making a big deal about the car and what it means has served well as a coming of age ritual for generations.  Not everyone does it, but it works well for those that do.

All this stuff was sloshing around in my head as I sat down to feed Harper, my 9 month old.

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Driving day for Harper T-15 years.  Suddenly a horrific thought came to my mind.  Would advancements in transportation technology destroy the first car ritual for Harper’s generation?  How will Uber change individual car ownership in 15 years?  What about self driving cars (my Tesla is already there, but hobbled by software and liability issues)?  If technology could free all that driving time to do other things, would we choose to free up that time?  Coming of age rituals very significantly across the world and have changed over time, but I am not sure I am ready to see this one go.  With regret I predict that Harper will be very unlikely to have a significant coming of age experience around getting her drivers license and first car 15 years from now.  By then she will likely have already been shuttled around town by inexpensive on demand transportation services of all types for many years.  Why waste time driving yourself?

As with many monkey mind sessions, I am not sure there is a solution in here.  Mostly observations.  After having so much swirling around I have found it helpful to name the major feelings that arose around this issue.  The Coming of Age Car Crisis elicited:

  •  Apprehension.  For all the trips without me Finn will take.  With all the increased access to the unknown now, access to the harmful, the hurtful, the danger in life will also increase.  Letting go is very scary.
  • Humble.  By the wonderful person Finn has become, one who is ready for all that comes with a license and a car.
  • Excited.  To see where the road continues to take Finn.  And for my own next chapter without all the driving of her and her friends around.  For where the path goes from here.

Stay tuned for more updates from the path of life and invitations to contemplation.

Some of my favorite teen driver resources:

How to Drive: Real World Instruction and Advice from Hollywood’s Top Driver