Carrie Underwood once famously sang, “Jesus take the wheel – cause I can’t do this on my own.” Recently I’ve gained a new appreciation for her imagery because my 15-year old was issued her learner’s permit. Yes, I can’t believe it…she is learning how to drive. Wasn’t she just in diapers doing her best Fred Flintstone, foot-power imitation in her Little Tikes mobile?
She’s never been behind the wheel of a car before. We don’t live on a farm or have a big yard so she never grew up driving a tractor or lawn mower. The closest she has been to operating a motorized vehicle are go-carts at amusement parks. And of course, those are small and regulated for speed.
Needless to say we are having some fun adventures. I’ve acted like Jesus several times – reaching over to take the wheel to correct a mistake. I’ve had to save a few mailboxes in our subdivision from being clipped by the passenger side, rear view mirror. And there was that one wide turn in our school parking lot that had us headed straight for the second grade classroom. (Shhh…don’t tell the principal.) That was a forceful take the wheel correction.
But she’s learning and getting better each time out.
Funny thing is, I’m re-learning something also that I forget from time to time.
Take the Wheel but Learn to Let Go
I’m convinced all kids want their parents to take the wheel. Kids want structure. They want things to make sense. They want there to be boundaries and rules and standards to follow.
They’ll never admit this, especially in the teen years. Teens project an image of toughness – like they don’t need anyone and can handle things on their own. Believe me, having worked with teens all my adult life, it’s a façade. Deep down – if being truly honest – they still want (and need) adults to take the wheel and provide guidance for their life.
Parents who take a hands off the wheel approach are doing their kids a disservice. Many modern theories of psychology promote this style of free-range parenting – that you should let your child do things on their own. Let them develop without being involved so they will become independent adults, so the theory goes.
It’s in exact contrast to the helicopter parenting style where adults hover over every little action a child does. These parents are mainly driven by fear and anxiety that something awful will happen to their child. So they don’t let them out of their sight and are loaded with phrases like, “Be careful…”, “Watch out…”, “That’s dangerous…” and “Wait for me…[to be there].”
What I’m relearning through my daughter’s driving experience is that parents have to take the wheel and provide direction. If I hadn’t, we’d have some damage to repair, both physical and emotional. And the emotional damage would most likely take longer. My daughter is still a bit nervous behind the wheel. Think how that would be exaggerated had she hit something.
But the other side of this equation is that I can’t have my hands on the wheel continuously. I can’t reach over in an attempt to correct every minor infraction. I can’t put my hands on the wheel every time a car is nearby or verbally coach her on every inch of road. If I do, how will she learn?
In order to be a good driver, she eventually has to figure this out for herself. I’ve had to resist reaching for the wheel in situations that didn’t matter but were making me nervous. So we’ve hit a curb once and ran through some low hanging tree branches she could have avoided. Not pleasant by any means but a good learning experience for her.
I’ll always be there to take the wheel for my kids. The last thing I want is for them to run into disaster because I wasn’t involved, wasn’t teaching or wasn’t directing. I’ve got a lot of wisdom to share and years of experience to back it up. It’d be inexcusable for me not to impart that to them.
But being an effective parent is also learning how to let go. And I’ll tell you that’s not easy – I think more so for dads and especially towards girls.
My goal is to teach, train and guide my kids so they can become adults who make wise decisions. If that takes hitting a few curbs along the way, I’m OK with that. But I’ll always be ready to take the wheel when the situation calls for it. I’ve seen too many train wrecks because of parents who didn’t.
Questions for Discussion: Did you have any fun adventures when you were learning how to drive? What was the worst thing that happened? Did your parent ever have to take the wheel to avoid hitting something? What was your parents parenting style and was it effective? Are you more protective or less protective as a parent? What scares you as a parent in today’s world?