"An Open Letter to My Son on His 16th Birthday"
A few days ago you took me for a drive in our car. Just before you backed out of the garage, you spent a moment adjusting the seat and the mirrors so that it fit you. As you fiddled with the seat control, you probably weren't thinking about the fact that the ride ahead would require an adjustment for me too.
For sixteen years now, I have been the one in the driver's seat. I have wracked up hundreds of thousands of miles driving you to music lessons and football, marching band and school. I have driven you to friend's houses and museums, restaurants and recreation. I have always made sure you were strapped in, prepared for whatever we were doing. I have done whatever I could to keep you safe.
Now that you've gotten your permit, you (apparently) are now ready to assume that responsibility for yourself, to literally and figuratively take a new step in navigating your own life. And I want you to know a few things before you take the wheel.
When you were a child, I often asked you to consider "what happens next," before you made decisions. We practiced that thought process over and over and over and over in countless scenarios. I purposely taught you to think ahead so that the voice in your own head would take over for me. It was my plan that when you were making big decisions, you would have your own internal ability to reason things through responsibly.
But right now, it's the little voice in my own head asking "What happens next?" That's because I have lived long enough to hear of, if not know people who have experienced all the possibilities. And I know that though I will sit beside you as you gain experience driving, eventually you will take off on your own. As much as I worry about you driving, I'm concerned about your friends driving you around too. Whether you're in the drivers seat, or you are the passenger in a car driven by another teen, I will not be able to protect you from the choices you and your friends make behind the wheel. And no matter how much preparation you've had, I have no guarantee that your reason will prove to be stronger than temptation.
This much is true: we have always prepared you to make sound decisions. Like most parents, we have done absolutely everything in our power to ensure that you experienced the natural consequences of your actions. For example, if you didn't do your homework or forgot to bring it in, we didn't necessarily rush to bring it to you. We let you figure things out for yourself in countless little ways. But now, the stakes are much higher. I worry that one little mistake could cause you to swerve far off course. When it comes to making mistakes on the road, the cost could be significant. I worry that no matter how much we drum this into your head, you--like almost every other teenager--are insulated with some self-protective mechanism that tells you "it won't happen to me." I know. I remember when I was the one sloughing off my own parents concerns with the right words on the surface, but not really getting it until a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver when I was 17.
I know that it will be many years before you understand just how much you have been given in life. We have worked hard to give you a feeling like you can do anything in this world, yet we've tried to temper that with a strong work ethic so that you don't feel entitled. But as we say in our family, some things you only figure out when you look back on them. As parents, we have made our own mistakes. And parenting is a little like alchemy. No matter how much you control the ingredients and the process, there are still mysterious forces at work that alter the finished product.
You are the most incredible "work in progress." You have so much going for you. Talent. Kindness. Intelligence. You're connected to us and to the world around you, yet you are able to be independent. I wish I could tell you in a way that I know you really get it, that the price of independence is responsibility.
When I was learning how to drive, I was given the advice to "remember to see the whole traffic picture." I hope that's something you take to heart when you get behind the wheel. Your life literally depends on it.