When I recently posted on Instagram a story of my 15-year-old daughter practicing her parallel parking in a freshly mown hayfield between a horse jump and two traffic cones, the response illuminated a generational shift.
“I learned to drive in a hayfield too,” one Gen-Xer from Peacham commented. “Priceless!!!!!” a Johnson millennial chimed in.
Truth be told, the best clips weren’t from the parking lesson: They were from the jumping and drifting session. If my kid’s going to learn how to get air in a mid-’90s Volvo wagon at speed on wet grass, I want to be there to offer encouragement and provide seasoned, technical guidance.
But sadly, just as kids aren’t learning cursive writing anymore, they aren’t taught, or aren’t discovering on their own, how to properly drift a rear-wheel-drive car at speed on moist timothy. This is bad for society and leads to texting and driving and other risky behavior like all-night, online gaming.
Author Jean M. Twenge would call my daughter a member of iGen. The first generation that won’t remember a time before the existence of the smartphone. In her 2017 book “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us,” Twenge unapologetically makes the case every parent knows today: Kids, on the whole, just don’t have that much fun anymore. They’ve been taught to play it safe. Especially girls.
Twenge says they’re insulated by tech, overparented, and increasingly depressed in greater numbers. This is where my three-part, concept driving school comes in. It’s called: “Driving to Adulthood: How Wild Wheeling Leads to Better Decision-Making in the Real World.”
My daughter says this idea “sounds fun, but would be a waste of time and money.” See what I’m talking about?
A week after first cut was in, the kid not only had her learner’s permit, she was “a very good driver,” according to herself. So, it was time for her second course: Standard transmissions in a painfully slow and unreliable vehicle.
Driving today is easy: climate control, defrost, working lights, backup cameras, iTunes. For teens, learning to drive in modern vehicles has become as easy as not talking to people in person.
“When I first had my license,” I said, “I had neither heat nor reverse. You really had to plan ahead.”
It was true. My 1977 VW van required lots of windshield scraping in winter, and a situational/topographical instinct for parking: Gravity was both friend and enemy when it came to that. But the vehicle was light and I usually had my sister on board to push in a pinch.
“Whatever,” my daughter said. “Why don’t you see for yourself?” I replied. I may not have THAT VW, but I have a 1971 VW bus that I drive daily in the summer. It has vacuum-advance brakes, meaning that if you lose power (often), you also lose the ability to stop without at once pulling hard on the steering wheel for leverage, tightening your quad and hammering on the brake, then actually employing the (thankfully functional) E-brake with your right hand in time to reduce speed, then pop the clutch with your left foot to get the thing (Victoria is her name) fired back up in time to brake properly before doing it all again if needed. Phew!
No amount of explaining the nuance of this sort of operation works on a person who’s “Got it, Dad.” So, at her request, behind the wheel she went. Seat belts? They’re non-adjustable. Dimmer switch? It works, but the headlights are plenty dim. Power steering? Ha! Warm it up good. A three-to-five-minute affair (ironically, the perfect amount of time to check one’s email). But, texting and driving? Not a feasible distraction with this all-consuming mental and physical automotive experience.
The toughest part of driving an aged vehicle like Vicky is simply shifting. Kids these days don’t know what a clutch is. And to watch one attempt the process without first learning at the walking pace of a farm tractor is, frankly, more troubling than the amount of time they spend on Snapchat.
Use your mirrors, kid. Do I have to hold it in gear? Only sometimes. What times? You’ll know when it pops out.
Push the clutch down. Into first. Equal parts on gas and off clutch. There you go. Now to neutral. Now swivel it there like you’re making chocolate milk. Now, down into second. No, that’s fourth. O.K., now it’s stalled. Find a gear, any gear. There you go. Now, let off the clutch quick to get it started again.
Beyond not learning to drive stick, American teens, Twenge suggests, are doing a lot less of everything than their Gen-X parents did, or the Millenials who do remember a time before Steve Jobs ruined fun forever.
“More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol,” Twenge laments in her book, acknowledging that these trends “are not inherently good or bad.”
She goes on that “young people are entering college and the working world without as much experience with adult independence.”
Which leads me to the last part of my driving program: Entering my teenager in the demolition derby at the World’s Fair in Tunbridge in September. Until then, I have a 12-year-old who wants to take a couple of laps around the field. I think I’ll start her on the tractor.
Editor’s Note: The ideas expressed by Adam Howard are not necessarily those of the owners and staff of Vermont Community Newspapers Group. Activities like drifting and jumping an automobile, even in a wide-open field, carry the risk of serious injury or death. Also, if you know of a free or very cheap car, in running condition, that Mr. Howard’s daughter could use in the demolition derby, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.