A story of milestones and Mario Andretti

With all apologies to my readers with young children, it is a cold reality that the milestones in your children’s lives become less frequent when they hit their teen years.  Unless you’re a little odd, you don’t celebrate the first pimple with the same enthusiasm as your baby’s first tooth, nor do you rejoice in their first day of high school with the same poignant mixture of pulsing emotions with which you waved them off to junior kindergarten.  It’s a little more of an agonizing knot of gut-eating anxiety that they be accepted into the sinister swirling social abyss of high school and emerge reasonably unscathed and marginally more educated in four years.

So in those years, during which you anxiously await their emergence into adulthood, the levity provided by teaching them to drive shines as a beacon in the life of the parent of a 16-year-old.  The Rational One and I have found ourselves flashing back to our own experiences of the freedom, joy and independence of first driving experiences. This is balanced, as all teen parenting experiences are, with moments of sheer terror, riding shotgun for your learner-driver, who appears to be attempting to kill you despite being your first-born offspring.

I have to admit, we take the responsibility of teaching The Firstborn seriously.  I’m sure he wishes we would lighten up a bit, but our theory is scare-the-heck-out-of-him-now-and-save-on-insurance-fees-later.  We started him out easy, on dirt roads in cottage county, getting the hang of the accelerator, brakes and steering. My assessment of the first outing:  two out of three skills wasn’t bad. It seems the concept of actually pressing on the brake pedal to slow the car down was a bit foreign to the master of Grand Theft Auto IV, where a careening vehicle with a prostitute in the passenger seat is the norm. It is likely there is a chipmunk or two along that road that is still crossing itself.

Parental philosophies of their role as shotgun passenger/ instructor vary immensely. I’ve seen some parents who approach their son or daughter driving as the personal car service they’ve always deserved. Emailing their colleagues by Blackberry, sipping coffee, the new driver merrily transporting them to their Bay Street meetings, like they are Donald Trump. They are interactive with the new driver only when there’s immediate danger, screaming instructions at them mid-conference call, then having to find some explanation for their statement to their colleagues that seems plausible… “John, what I meant was we need to be aware of the potholes in this project plan.”

While I’ve had the luxury of sipping my coffee along the ride too, I’d recommend a true travel mug in case of sudden braking.  Ironically, once The Firstborn found that pedal, he’s enjoyed being hard on it some rides.

Other parents are clearly molding their young drivers in their exact image.  I was cut off the other day by a very young driver in a pimped up 4×4 truck.  He had his radio cranked up loud, one hand hanging out the window, tapping away to his favourite red-neck tune, and a double double Tim’s in the other hand that was allegedly controlling the steering wheel, though I was hard pressed to determine if that was in the “10 or 2” position.  When I pulled up next to him to see which parent was supervising, I noted that Dad was asleep riding shot-gun.   Not, I’m sure, what the Ministry of Transportation had in mind when they brought in graduated licensing, but hey, technically he had a licensed driver in the passenger seat.

I feel for the kids.  Even in our own household the variance in driving style is huge and is reflected in our teaching approach with him.  I approach driving as a gentle meander down the road;  a stress free manner to run between my errands, the hockey rinks, etc.  It’s a way to demonstrate my gracious nature to my fellow Torontonians and city motorists.  The Rational One approaches driving a bit more in the spirit of his favourite spectator sport, Formula One racing.  Every light is a competition for pole position; every two lane road is an opportunity to secure the lead, every gas station fill-up is a pit stop to be accomplished within 8 seconds, and every highway, well, it’s the Autobahn.  I can appreciate The Firstborn’s confusion when I don’t appreciate the engine rev and stare-down with the car next to us at each stoplight.

It certainly makes me appreciate the patience from all the drivers who taught us.  I can remember learning on a standard car, trying to master brakes, accelerator, gearshift, clutch and steering and my Dad feeling like three out of five wasn’t bad.  I careened around a corner so fast once, that the little ’76 Honda Civic was on two wheels, tires squealing.  He didn’t do anything except ask me to pull over at the next stop sign, so he could get out and light a cigarette.  I remember him leaving the car, leaning back against the car hood, and seeing his hands shaking as he lit it. He simply said, “Don’t forget about that brake pedal too, okay?” Ah, heredity.

I’m a big supporter of safe driving, and as milestones go, watching him receive that first licence and slip it into the pocket of his wallet was a pretty sweet moment.  He is learning to take care of his passengers, and all the responsible parts that are incumbent in being a good driver.  But I hope he never loses that feeling of freedom that accompanies driving.  Let’s face it, we all still love a little engine rev at the stop light, and the fun it brings when it turns green.

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