Cars are usually given in celebration of significant milestones, like high school or college graduation. The ability to bestow such an expensive gift is far more common in middle- and upper-middle-class households since these parents are more likely to have the economic resources to do so. Natalie's words are revealing.
AB: Oh, so you didn't get it [a car] when you were sixteen? NATALIE: No. AB: How come?
NATALIE: I didn't get it because I was very lazy and the classes that you had to take for that were tedious to me and I was not into that. I was very,
I was the type of high school student that enjoyed the weather a little too much. Didn't really enjoy going to ten-hour classes on a Saturday to learn driving skills so my parents offered to buy me a car and that's when I was getting the motivation to be like, OK I'll do it, if I pay for the insurance and the gas and the tune up.
Natalie's parents used a car to motivate Natalie to change her lethargic ways. Another young woman was given a new Pontiac Firebird for her sixteenth birthday because her parents wanted her to maintain her focus on valued goals.
They paid [for the car and related expenses] because I was in high school and I didn't have a job, you know my parents wanted me to focus on school and sports and I didn't have time to do a job after that. So that was my job, basically . . . my parents just never like, you know, said don't worry about it.
In either case, parents used cars to cultivate desired behaviors in their kids.
In a sense, getting a car also teaches kids about the economic realities of their families. Decisions over whether to buy a car, what kind of car, and its intended uses reveal to kids how their parents think about spending money, what sort of disposable income they have, and their willingness to assume additional debt. These negotiations are also occasions for young adults to form their own ideas about spending and consumption.
This was also evident in talking with a number of kids about having an expensive car. In talking about other kids they knew who were given what were seen as unreasonably expensive automobiles, some teenagers morally objected. One young man who drove a used Ford Taurus station wagon, which he almost entirely financed himself, remarked, "They're not going to appreciate their car because they didn't work for it, they just kind of got it." A young woman who drove her father's four-year-old Camry offered a similar story: "One of my Dad's friends, he's a doctor and he got his daughter a Mercedes convertible and so I was like, I was a little bit jealous, I was like jeez ... but then again I don't know, that sounds like you're spoiling your kids a little bit." Almost everyone seemed to have a story to tell about the overindulged child.
I have a neighbor and she just got her license and she's a junior and her dad bought her a BMW. And I was like "whaaaaat" and I wasn't hating on her like hey, if that's what you're going to get for your first car, go for it. But I don't know knowing that it's your first car most likely, hopefully not, but most likely if you're not an experienced driver you know what I mean. Something can happen.
Another young man, who was given his grandfather's relatively new Jeep Grand Cherokee, made the following observation:
I find it kind of funny when you know someone who like got a brand new car and totaled it. Then, like, her mom gets her a brand new car, I mean you know, it's fine because, that's what her mom chose to do and everything but I, I don't, maybe she'll get the impression that cars can be, you know just tossed away and you'll get a new one for free.
Conflicting social ideals are enmeshed as this young man and the others struggle to resolve the contradictions inherent in buying a teenage child a high-priced luxury car.
My interviews also reveal taken-for-granted ideas about who in American culture deserves to consume expensive objects. Since teens are generally regarded as economically nonproductive, despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of teenagers work full- or part-time according to the 2000 U.S. Census Report on the Youth Labor Force, they are often seen as undeserving.
Although some parents were willing to buy cars for their young adult children, other parents expect their kids to shoulder some of the financial burden. "They were paying the payments under their name and I was paying them cash every month for my car. I would pay like $200 and it was like $350 so they would like pay [the remaining amount], you know what I mean," one young woman explained. This was the case for Tony, who learned that the luxury and freedom of car ownership came at a price.
I was working um, I had got this job through my mother's, one of my mother's coworkers. It was a bad job that's why I'm always thankful that I have a good job now. It was like janitorial work and yeah, so I had to commute all the way from the south side of San Jose all the way to like Fair Oaks, which is in Sunnyvale and it was it was a horrible job but I did that for three months and I just saved and saved and saved and saved until I had like $3,000 and I went put a, got my Probe.
When a young adult helped pay for a car, this sometimes convinced his or her parents that the teenager had learned responsibility and maturity.
I was like, I think I have enough money where if you guys put the down payment maybe I could make the monthly payments, you know. And then they were just like, hmmm, we'll see, we'll see, don't worry about it. . . coming around. So I used that as an excuse. I was like, come on you know and then I think either my brother got a raise or something, something happened where he, I asked him to help me out. So then we came up with a plan, okay if my dad put the down payment then we would both pay half of the monthly.
And so but they were still kind of like, yeah we'll see, we'll see and then my dad got a new car so I kind of laid a guilt trip on him. So they ended up getting me a car and now I have to pay half the monthly installments.
While some parents are willing to buy a car for their child, they expect the child to cover the cost of car-related expenses. If this serves as lessons in financial responsibility for young adults, it also enables parents to monitor their child's whereabouts and how they spend their own money, since kids typically must have a part-time job to cover these expenses. These jobs consume considerable time outside of school and the money earned often goes directly to cover car costs instead of being spent elsewhere.
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Although nobody gets a parenting manual or bible in the delivery room, it is our duty as parents to try to make our kids as well rounded, happy and confident as possible. It is a lot easier to bring up great kids than it is to try and fix problems caused by bad parenting, when our kids have become adults. Our children are all individuals - they are not our property but people in their own right.