I took my driver’s license test on my 16th birthday and failed.  I share this piece of history not because of the failure – although it does make a good story – but because of the timing.  Back in 1984, one could obtain a learner’s permit at 15 years and 9 months so that the day you hit Sweet 16, you could also hit the streets alone… if you passed the test.  That was my plan:  Get behind the wheel as soon as possible.  I took my brush with failure in stride and returned to the DMV a few days later, passing with flying colors.  Upon my triumphant arrival home, Mom gave me the keys to the car and off I went to visit my boyfriend.  I remember the moment vividly – getting into that car for the first time all by myself.  Life was good; I was free.

On Friday, Noah turned 16 years old.  And things are much different now.

First, you can’t get your learner’s permit until you are officially 16.  Second, you must complete “65 hours of supervised behind-the-wheel skill-building, including no less than ten hours of nighttime driving and five hours of bad weather driving” before you take the test.  Third, the supervising adult is assumed to be the parent, who signs a contract promising to abide by these rules.  Given the above,  it will be at least another six months before Noah can drive his brother anywhere.  But new rules aside, there is one huge difference that has left me completely perplexed, wondering where I failed as parent:

Noah isn’t all that interested in driving.

The possibility that there would be no sense of urgency to get his license appeared several months ago when I picked up the PA Manual from the DMV and eagerly handed it over to Noah, explaining that the written test was fairly simple, but that he would still have to study.  He politely skimmed through it and then put it down on the kitchen counter, never to return to it.  When I asked him a few weeks ago if he wanted to get his permit on his birthday, he vaguely said, “Sure, at some point.”  But he never followed up.

And you know what?  He’s not the only one.  In the past year I have had conversations with a number of parents of children who are eligible to drive, but choose not to – at least initially.  The generational gap feels intimidatingly and inexplicably wide here.  Back in the day, we could barely wait to win this rite of passage. What happened to this next generation’s drive?

I pondered a few explanations:

Driving is too intimidating.  Granted, the process of driving is no more daunting than when I was sixteen.  But back then, our understanding of the perils of driving were limited to how closely we paid attention to the mandatory driver’s ed screening of “Highways of Death.”  Ironically perhaps, today’s steady stream of messages regarding safe and responsible driving has scared the shit out of our kids.  Ignorance was strength in 1984.  Today, we make certain our children know every single way an innocent ride can go horribly wrong.

Driving is too much trouble.  I wonder if the added hours of “supervised behind-the-wheel skill-building” have sucked all the joy out of getting one’s license.  If suddenly we reverted to the days of old and Noah could try for his license the day after he got his permit, would he be more motivated?  Why hurry up only to wait?  No doubt the extra training is wise and prudent, but admittedly it does dampen the excitement for kids and parents alike.  Frankly, I’m not sure when we are going to find 65 hours’ worth of driving opportunity in the next year.  Do I hear ROAD TRIP?? And five hours of bad weather driving?  I’m not sure who is less excited!  Under the new regime, we all really have to WANT this bad.  Many are wondering if its worth the hassle.

Driving No Longer = Freedom.  Herein lies perhaps the most likely and the most poignant reason for this generation’s collective lack of enthusiasm for driving.  They don’t need a set of car keys to be free.  They already are.  When I was a teenager, if I wanted to engage with my friends, I would have to physically transport myself to a specific place.  Otherwise, I was relegated to the corded telephone where I could have time limited, awkward conversations with one person at a time.  Hanging out now requires no such movement.  My kid needs a Facebook or Google + account to connect with his friends.  They can play each other in video games remotely.  They are in constant electronic contact at all times regardless of where they might be situated.  So driving to spend time with pals is more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have or I might actually go insane.” 

At some point during this exercise, I concluded that the energy spent analyzing these kids’ ambivalence about driving is misdirected. In my haste to make certain that my child was an exact replica of myself, I figured there was some deep-seeded, neurological emotional, psychotic reason that he didn’t want to rush over to the old DMV.  This character flaw was something to diagnose and treat with encouragement and enthusiasm.  I would gently show him the error of his reluctant ways.  But to what end?

Truth be told, Dave and I hit the jackpot with a son who isn’t chomping at the bit to take off in his Dad’s car.  I put this milestone into the same bucket as:

I can’t wait for him to walk..
Let’s get him a big boy bed…
Why doesn’t he want to play baseball…
I wonder when he will start to care about girls…

I know how all of the above turned out.  Yet, I still haven’t fully learned that there’s no going back.  You can’t ungrow them once you wish them into the next phase of development.  And with every new passage into adulthood comes a fresh set of worries.  Driving is a biggie.  If Noah isn’t in a hurry, than neither am I.

My son, I wisely yield to you the right of way.

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