Dear Dr. Wes and Kendra: Most of my 16 1/2-year-old son’s peers couldn't wait to drive, but he seems to be putting it off eternally. I seem to remember you saying something about this in the past, but I wondered if you had any advice on how to proceed. It seems really difficult to be a functional adult if you can't drive.
Kendra: While I can understand why you, as a parent, would prefer your son to drive, there are a number of obstacles that may prevent him from doing so. He may have a spatial disability that makes finding his way more difficult. He may fear the responsibility of being behind a wheel. Whatever the problem, forcing an uninterested teenage boy to drive may be more dangerous than the boy having to find other methods of travel.
Many teens are eager to drive because they seek independence and they see having control of their transportation as a necessary step to adulthood. I was thrilled to drive for the first time at age 15, but my older sister, Samantha, still hates being in the driver’s seat. She and those like her prove their maturity in other ways.
In a town like Lawrence it may be tough to get from Point A to Point B without a personal vehicle, but public transportation in bigger cities is often easier to manage. Even in Lawrence, the T-bus and helpful friends can provide rides to a number of locations in town. However, if your son begins to rely exclusively on you for rides, you must assert that you’re done playing the role of chauffeur.
While driving is not a necessity per say, there are benefits to having a license, especially as a young adult. For example, your son may find himself at a party or in a situation where he feels uncomfortable and the best option is to leave the scene. If he relies on fickle peers, he’ll have no guarantee of a ride home or, at least, not a sober one.
Whether your son opts to take his chances on other drivers or heads to the city where cars aren’t as necessary, it’s entirely possible for him to function in adult life. And for now, at least you won’t be paying the pricey insurance rates for a male teen driver.
Wes: I only started noticing this phenomenon about six or seven years ago, but I run into it a lot now. Sometimes the young person gains confidence with experience driving, just as you’d suspect. Other times, a teen just refuses to learn, or eventually gets a license but never feels truly comfortable behind the wheel.
As Kendra points out, that’s a mixed blessing. You get to stay clear of the many worries teen drivers bring into our families and society. If he’s college bound, your son could easily find a campus that’s built around not having a car. But once he graduates, he’ll be limited to one of the few American cities where public transportation is safe and expansive enough to throw away the car keys. Chicago, New York, D.C. and San Francisco come to mind, with their sprawling rail and bus systems used by the general public for commuting. But cities like Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver and even LA just aren’t set up that way. Some, like Kansas City, don’t even have a comprehensive system across the metro.
But that’s not even the most serious concern. Driving is kind of a metaphor for life. You train to do it well. You interact with others on the road. You become able to focus on what’s important and solve difficult problems as they arise. So, if your son is resisting driving, I’d be concerned about what else he’s struggling with — maybe excess anxiety or problems with attention. A diagnosis isn’t as important as figuring out the underlying cause, and that will give you a hint on how to move him through the process.
Kendra is right, there’s more to life than driving, but a lot of doors close without it. Dig further into your son’s concerns and see if there’s not something more to the story.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.