How I Learned to Drive

Caitlin Flanagan writes:

You know her — that nice teenager across the street? Chloe. There she is, sitting in one of the two captain’s seats in the midsection of her mom’s Toyota Sienna, bopping along to the music on her iPod. Now and then she pulls out one of the ear buds so that she can tell her mom some forgotten bit of news or gossip; Chloe’s mom is up to speed on the dramas that are always unfolding in her daughter’s circle of friends, just as she can tell you the date of her next French test, the topic of her coming history paper and the location and scope of her next community service project. They have a great night planned out: they’re going to pick up Chloe’s best friend and then drive back home for a night of DVDs and popcorn in the family room. Her mom will putter around close by, and her dad will probably sit down and watch one of the movies with the girls.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, we had a name for teenagers like Chloe: losers. If an otherwise normal girl thought that the best way to spend a Saturday night was home with her parents — not just co-existing with them, but actually hanging out with them — we would have been looking for a bucket of pig’s blood.

…If our generation of parents has done one thing right, it has been to manipulate our children into giving up driving.

How have we managed it? Through the very aspect of family life we complain about the most: the extracurricular activities that we pay for and arrange and attend; the risibly involved homework assignments that we are so enmeshed with; the whole annoying side industry of being valet and chauffeur. … It means that we can prolong the period of our children’s dependency, to extend the sweet phase of cocooning and protecting well into their adolescence.

This is all true enough, but I’m not sure Flanagan explains all of it, and I’m not quite as sanguine about this trend as she is. Many parents, it seems to me, have given up on the idea of, well, parenting. They’ve chosen to be interested lifestyle coaches and activity managers on one hand, best friends on the other — anything rather than engage in the (admittedly very tough) work of discipline and mentoring that used to comprise the majority of parental activity. The idea seems to be to remove all of the boundaries and layers of authority that separate children from their parents except those involving access to resources — money, cars, and access.

Now this probably isn’t a terrible thing; it’s what has accelerated the shift from parent-as-authority-figure to parent-as-best-friend, and there are certainly far worse prospects in life than being best friends with you parents. But the word “dependence” has negative connotations for a reason, and I wonder if there isn’t room for both a little more separation in parent-child roles and the independence that comes with it.