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The Cautious Driver: My New Teen Driver Is Nothing Like I Imagined

For months leading up to my oldest son’s 16th birthday, he offered daily reminders about what he wanted as a gift to mark the occasion: driving lessons.

After passing the written test in school, all Sam needed to secure that coveted learner’s permit was six hours behind the wheel with an instructor.

“Did you schedule the lessons yet? Are we all set? Can I start on my birthday?” he’d ask repeatedly. Each time, he’d grin eagerly as I imagined a montage of clips from The Fast and the Furious playing behind his mischievous brown eyes.

Of course, part of me was excited for him. Learning to drive is a rite of passage. Though it’s been 30 years, I remember well the thrill and freedom of fastening that seat belt and feeling as if the open road, a full tank of gas, and a good mixed tape could take you anywhere.

A Childhood Speed Demon

But the other part of me — the mom part of me — had flashbacks to the many afternoons I stood cringing in our driveway as Sam gunned his electric blue Power Wheels Mustang in reverse, sending our garbage cans flying while he laughed with the menace of a cartoon villain.

Though it’s been a decade since he could fit behind the wheel of that tiny sports car, I’ve recently watched him on X-box blazing down freeways and plowing high-end SUVs straight into mountains, farm stands, and skyscrapers at top speeds, gripping his controller for dear life.

Was I ready to hand over the keys to this guy? And if I did, should I expect a white-knuckle ride every time?

Still, I went ahead and booked the lessons, fear in my heart for my son, this unsuspecting instructor, and everyone else on the road.

So imagine my surprise when, after the first two hours, the instructor walked to the door to tell me how attentive and careful my new driver was. I looked around the front porch to make sure he wasn’t confusing my son with someone else.

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He wasn’t. And, sure enough, once he had the permit in hand, I saw for myself just how different Sam was in the driver’s seat.

A Cautious Driver as a Teen

At home, I typically remind him a dozen times to bring his empty dinner plate to the sink, but behind the wheel, he adjusts his seat and every mirror, checking and rechecking the angles before putting the gear shift in drive — and before I even say a word.

In the event of even a light mist, he sets his wipers to the perfect interval while I wonder, “Who is this cautious driver and what has he done with my son, who tries to leap most staircases in a single bound?”

If he goes into a turn too quickly, he immediately apologizes. My son takes after his grandfather and is reluctant to accept responsibility, often blaming his brothers for leaving a gallon of milk on the counter or wet towels on the bathroom floor. It’s an unusual treat to hear him say, “I’m sorry if I took that turn a little fast.” And by “fast” he means anything over 10 miles per hour.

Another surprise my husband and I are enjoying is Sam’s openness to advice.

While at home, our suggestions are usually met with an abundance of eye-rolling. While on the road, he’s ready to listen and even asks for our input.

When he says,“Don’t worry. I’m looking out for pedestrians,” or “What would you have done in that situation?” I loosen my grip on the armrest and breathe a little easier. I even think part of me feels maybe this new cautious driver will be alright after all.

But the other part of me — the mom part of me — wonders if this crafty kid isn’t lulling me into a false sense of security. Sure, he’s showing plenty of good judgment now, but when he gets his license will he slide behind the wheel with the swagger and hubris of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights?

Only time will tell. But for now, he’s taking it slow and seriously, and I’m going appreciate this ride for as long as it lasts.

Liz Alterman’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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