Steering Daughter on the Road to Adulthood

“So, when you say the car has rust on it, what exactly do you mean?” my daughter asked tentatively. I had already told her its moderate price tag (“moderate” here being a word that means “less than the cost of the new pots and pans I received last Christmas”), so she ought to have known the car is well-worn, at best.

“I mean rust. That orange stuff that collects when metal corrodes. But don't worry — it goes nicely with the color of the car,” I said.

Apparently, this isn't what my teenage daughter expected when she learned we were purchasing a third family car that she may use to drive to school and elsewhere in her busy teenage life.

Note I didn't refer to the car “we were purchasing for her.” Semantics are important here, at least to my husband and me. We're very careful to refer to this vehicle as the one we will make available to our daughter. It's not “her car.”

“Her car” would be a vehicle for which she saved, shopped, and committed financial resources. “Her car” would be registered in her name, insured by her, and maintained by her. Contrary to theories of common law, possession in this case is unimportant. Just because you hold the keys doesn't mean the car is yours.

We bought the car because, after more than a year of driving on a learner's permit, our daughter finally will be a licensed driver this month. When that happens, we want the added convenience of another driver to ease the relentless transportation hassles associated with four busy children. We got the car for us, not for her.

That's why the car was not presented with a bow on the rearview mirror, or in any other way that would associate this purchase with our daughter's 16th birthday — no designer key ring, no value-pack of car wash certificates, not even a gift-wrapped ice scraper. We're very careful to make it seem this car is a burden of sorts.

Nonetheless, the next thing she wanted to know about the car after she asked about the color was whether it has an in-dash CD player.

She's excited, and I can't blame her. In fact, I may be one of the few mothers in America who is as thrilled that her child is obtaining a driver's license as is the new driver.

For a while now, I've had a feeling reminiscent of the ninth month of pregnancy — the time when the duration of gestation surpasses the fear of childbirth. I know this is going to be painful, but I'll do pretty much anything to get this child out into the world. I look forward to her mobility much as I dreamed of walking without waddling during my 30s.

It's a rite of passage for us both. My daughter's new responsibilities as a driver will bring her the freedom she craves. She's excited to feel more grown up, more like the adult she is working hard to become. She envisions herself running her own errands, carrying a purse for good reason, even taking on new activities such as volunteer work or a part-time job.

This particular rite of passage is a challenge for me, however. It's not that I want to hold her back — on the contrary, I know she's ready and able to be out in the world, ferrying herself around town to and from school, sports practice, and lessons. She's proved time and again that she appreciates the seriousness of getting behind the wheel of a car.

Still, I'm struggling with what I must give up to help her grow. Up to now, riding in the car is an extension of being at home together — it's a place she can burst into tears or quickly tell her big news. It holds secrets and hopes and plans shared in private.

When I hand over the keys to that rusty but reliable old car, I hand her the space to keep from opening her heart. I can't help but ask myself, when she no longer needs a ride, will she still need the driver?

It's a question we parents must quell in the interest of rearing secure, independent children. At some point, I have to trust that the hours spent talking and listening — in and out of the family car — have built a bond that no mere change in transportation can render obsolete.

I'm pretty sure my sentimentality will soon give way to the rediscovery of many precious hours formerly spent as a chauffeur. With fewer children needing my “kiddy cab” services, I may even have time to read books or walk the dog or take up knitting. Who knows?

Besides, if ever I miss the time spent chatting with my daughter while driving her around town, I can always insist on giving her a ride. After all, the car she's driving isn't really hers, anyway.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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