Driving dad crazy: It's payback time

April 26, 2002|By BRENT MORRISON

Special to this newspaper

I remember as clearly as if it had been 30 minutes, not 30 years: The washed-out dirt road, ruts that could swallow a beagle, a station wagon the size of an armored car, a hysterical stranger to my right.

OK, the stranger was my mother, but she was hard to recognize with her hands over her eyes. She kept saying something, alternating between a whimper and a scream so I rarely understood, which was probably just as well.

I failed my driver's test twice as a teen, in part because Mom didn't have the nerve to let me practice. My grandfather, a retired chauffeur and one of the most unflappable human beings I have ever known, finally had mercy on us both and spent a few weeks riding with me after school. One day he announced I was ready. I took the test, and that was that.


I swore that in the unlikely event I ever had children I would teach them to drive on a real road, in a nimbler car, and maintain complete composure. Heck, everyone probably would have space cars like the Jetsons' by then, or maybe just beam from place to place, so driving wouldn't even be necessary. But if lessons were still needed, I would be cool.

And I am, sort of. My daughter, Girl-Child, is 16 and anxious to hit the road. The wagon has been replaced by an equally tank-like 1988 Volvo but with automatic transmission and a turning radius tighter than the space shuttle's. We drive on paved roads, my hands are generally folded in my lap, my eyes stay on the road. I speak in quiet, steady tones. I am, by most appearances, my grandfather.

Inside I am my mother, but I don't let her out. This split is a lot like the rest of parenting; few of us feel truly relaxed until it's over, but you can't let it show.

The challenge of teaching is that it forces you to noodle through the familiar, to revisit things that are so automatic you hardly think of them. Do the front wheels belong behind the line when you stop, or is it the bumper? Exactly how far before a turn should you signal? How much of a head start must you give pedestrians before nailing them outside a crosswalk?

Just kidding about the last one, though I had a high school teacher who illustrated right-of-way laws by explaining when it was legal to hit someone. Common sense gets you through the little memory gaps, but what about rules you know but might not always follow, like signaling lane changes, coming to a complete stop at intersections or speed limits?

It would not be reasonable to expect my daughter to drive by one set of rules while I follow another. I have no problem with different standards for children and adults in general; to the contrary, I get annoyed at the notion that minors should have, or can even handle, the choices, rights and responsibilities of adulthood. However, there has to be a reason for the differences and I just can't think of one for traffic safety.

One of the first decisions I made as a father was to live as I want my children to live and to be what I want them to be. I am farther from this than I like, but I could not expect them to keep a clean tongue if I swore, tune in a game while I send them to church and think they'll be devout or drive like a fool and assume they won't.

You can't behave just for show, either; kids smell hypocrisy. The good news is that if something is good for your children, it's probably right for you, too.

>> Brent Morrison describes himself as a syndicated columnist and recovering CPA. A lifelong Californian, he lives with his wife and two children.

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