Letting go of the Wheel

My boys grew up on the farm, and they learned to drive at a very young age, following farm equipment slowly down the dirt roads—not something I would condone, but simply stating a fact—so, by the time they were old enough to take driver education, teaching them to handle a vehicle was not at all difficult. However, my daughter was a different story. She did not have the behind the wheel experience the boys had, so driver education was a new experience for both of us. Throughout the process I repeatedly had to restrain my impulse to reach over and grab the wheel, and a few times I thought I might stomp a hole in the floor trying to step on a non-existent brake.

Letting go of my teens and helping them learn to make their own decisions and their own choices was much like teaching my daughter to drive, and it has been as much of a learning and growing process for me as for them. As home school parents, we are unaccustomed to relinquishing control, but just as my daughter had to learn how to control the vehicle without my hands on the wheel or my foot on the brake, our children eventually grow into young men and women, and they must learn to handle their own lives without parents to direct every decision.

Thankfully, just as infants do not just suddenly become toddlers but rather grow into toddlers, teens do not just instantly become adults capable of making adult decisions. Eighteen is not some magical age at which a child suddenly becomes an adult. Growing into adulthood is a long, slow process that should begin early in their teen years.

When our children are little, we parents buckle them into car seats, and we take them where we want them to go and when we want to go. When they get a little older, we start allowing them to get into the vehicle by themselves and buckle themselves, but we still make the decision about where to go and when. Occasionally, we may let an older child ride in the front seat—usually a special and honored position. However, we would not want to just hand over the keys and relinquish control to a teen, or even young adult, who had not been taught how to drive; this is not an overnight exchange. It is a process that begins with inviting them up into the front seat, discussing various driving situations, and explaining the laws and our decisions to them while we travel together.

Several months before my daughter started to drive, I realized that she rarely ever sat in the front and I had never talked to her about traffic laws or made a deliberate point of training her in the area of driver education. With two older brothers just a step above her, I was still doing most of the navigating for the boys, and she was always left in the backseat. I had to start looking for opportunities for us to travel together so that she could begin to observe the driving process.

In much the same way, when my boys were teens, I realized that they needed to be “riding in the front seat” and observing life’s road, and I began to seek opportunities to start having discussions with them about the direction they were going. Since I was a single mom, this was a little difficult. I soon came to realize that it takes a man to teach a boy how to be a man, so I had to find other men with whom my boys could “travel.” God was good to provide my boys with mentors, but I also needed to spend lots of time with them, asking questions and prying into their hearts, patiently listening—or at least trying to patiently listen—while they searched for answers that would help each of us discover who it was that God created them to be. I found Age of Opportunity by Paul David Tripp to be an excellent guidebook for this journey.

While my boys had their learner permits, I was required to travel in the front seat with them. They had learner permits for several months, so for all that time everywhere we went, they would drive, and I would sit in the front and offer advice, suggestions, and guidance. I think the teen years should be considered to be like having a learner permit for life. That is the time for the parent to start practicing sitting in the passenger’s seat and offering advice and suggestions, while the student is practicing real “behind the wheel” situations.

Not long after my second son got his driver license, our family took a road trip to Arizona. This was our first road trip in which an adult in the front seat was required for neither of my boys, and it was my first experience at taking my place in the backseat. I discovered I am a terrible backseat driver! I was still trying to offer advice and navigate from the backseat, and because my view was not quite as clear from the backseat, one of my strong suggestions actually put us on the wrong road for a time.

Now my boys are twenty and twenty-one years old, and I am learning to simply sit in the backseat and let them do the driving and their own navigating. Occasionally, the backseat driver in me still surfaces, and I offer advice when I have not been consulted, and they have not always taken the right road. We have had a few fender-benders and an occasional wreck in life, but my sons are beginning to choose their own paths. Although I still struggle with the urge to take the wheel at times, there are other times when they “invite me to join them in the front seat,” and we journey down a back road to enjoy the view while they seek my advice and opinions regarding which road to take.

I am thankful that my eighteen-year-old daughter still invites me to sit in the front and is happy to let me navigate some, although I am trying to let her choose the course. I hope, on this journey at least, my experiences with her brothers have made me a better instructor so perhaps my transition to the backseat will be a little easier for us both.

Meet Sheila Campbell