by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor
In America, earning a driver’s license is a rite of passage. It marks the first tip-toe step toward adulthood. For nonfarm and nonhunting kids, it marks the first time society trusts you to be responsible with your own life and the lives of others.
I remember learning how to drive, and like many other rites of passage, it wasn’t always pleasant. I had my first wreck when I was a toddler (my uncle left me in a running truck and I decided to go for a drive). Thankfully, I lasted about 10 years before my next wreck when I wrapped a farm truck around a light pole at the age of 14. My dad was furious, but my grandfather just laughed and said, “Son, you’re supposed to stop BEFORE you get there.”
If you remember my column about learning how to drive a tractor, you know that my father was not always patient when teaching someone a new skill. He was no different when teaching me how to drive. Every time I would make a mistake, he would get upset, which would make me nervous, which would lead to me making another mistake, which would make Dad angrier, which would make me even more nervous, and so the cycle continued.
Thankfully, my grandfather would take me out driving every time my dad wasn’t around. It was a lot easier to learn from someone who could stay calm while his life was in the hands of an inexperienced teenage driver.
I used to wonder why my Dad got upset so quickly when teaching me to drive. Twenty-five years later, I have figured out the answer. You see, this year I’m in the passenger seat while my 14-year-old son is behind the wheel. Every time I ride with him I can’t help but think of all the stupid things I did as a teenage driver. When he makes a mistake, I want to let him know about it immediately so that it doesn’t become a bad habit that could get him or someone else killed.
In some ways, it’s like learning how to drive again because I have to think about every single aspect of what is happening both inside and outside the car so I can warn him before he gets into trouble. There are a lot of things we do as experienced drivers that we don’t have to think about anymore. Yet, I have to think about those things again so that I can let my son know about them. Trying to stay that alert can put you on edge, and when you speak urgently to a child, they can mistake that for anger.
And of course, it’s easy to become upset for real when your child makes the same mistake again even after you point it out to them.
Unfortunately for my son, his grandfather (who is much more mellow these days) is more than 1,000 miles away, and the poor boy is stuck learning from me. So, I do my best to stay calm and remember that it took me a while to become a proficient driver, and my son deserves the same amount of time to learn a new skill.
I don’t want to become one more thing my son has to worry about as he takes in a lot of information at once and tries his best not to make a mistake. As I sit there, trying not to speak too much, pointing out only the most important things while he drives, something wonderful happens. My worry recedes, and I watch my son undergoing his own rite of passage and taking part in a great American tradition. My heart fills with pride as he takes his first steps toward adulthood and responsibility, and I remember how deeply satisfying fatherhood can be.