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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

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.

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