Negotiating For The Family

A driver's license carries the promise of freedom and independence for many teens since parents are no longer able to monitor their exact whereabouts. This, of course, is central to its appeal, as Allison, one of my interviewees, explains.

When I got my driver's license, I looked at it as freedom, getting out from my parents, going places you couldn't get to before because you had to have your parent's permission . . . not having to be worried about being dropped off and being picked up. Going to the library even or a dance club or a party and not having to worry about, I don't know, your parents having to come pick you up. Not necessarily, it wasn't embarrassment for me, it was more, just like OK, I make my own choices I can leave when I want to you know, I made this decision to come here you know I'll drop you off. I felt more like an adult but um, I don't know, I went to the beach, to people's houses, friend's houses, the movies.

Yet for many of these young adults freedom is hard won. One young woman's father expected her to postpone getting her license until she was seventeen (one year older than is required by California law). Once seventeen, she was allowed to drive only when directly supervised by her mother for an additional year. As she explained, "I was just like, basically that one year, it's just like I was driving with my mom like to errands and stuff." Another young man was required by his mother to wait two years beyond the legal age requirement before obtaining his license. In most instances, freedom is realized only after a series of negotiations with parents. Hortencia, a high school student, commented:

My parents, I don't think they were strict, but then again they weren't maybe because I challenged them on it, I mean, it wasn't, when they would say no to something I would say, but why? Here are my reasons why I can do this, what are your reasons? So I kind of engaged them in a conversation and because like I was always totally involved in school when I was, it was just like by chance if I went somewhere, like I didn't, I didn't, for me like, I was never into drinking, I was never into, so I knew what I was doing was fine. After I talked to them they would let me go.

Like Hortencia, most young adults defined these as negotiations where parent(s) were at least willing to listen. Sarah and Christina, both white and female, were two notable exceptions.

SARAH: I'm gonna get a car when I have money. Yeah my parents don't like me and they don't like the fact that I would ever get a car because I'm a B-I, B with an itch and I would probably run people off the road, trust me PMS straight out I'll get my driver's license but no car. AB: Will your parents let you drive their car? SARAH: I don't think they trust me.

CHRISTINA: I got my permit when I was fifteen and I had kept wanting to go get my license. I took all the driving lessons and everything. My mom finally decided you know "we'll just put this off, put this off." So when I was eighteen I got my license on my own. Since they [parents] don't have to sign anything. She'd used it as a punishment because I wanted to drive myself to school and work and everything else ... umm ... she would say "no, no, no you have to do things my way" and if they weren't done the right way "you can't get your license."

Christina's situation was especially tenuous. Her mother forbade here from using the bus and prohibited her from riding with her friends in their cars, while also not allowing her to drive. Christina was literally forced to rely on her mother to drive her or otherwise be left at home.

Young adults actively negotiate with parents. Yet most see themselves as relatively powerless in these interactions since the car ultimately belongs to the parent. Unlike parents, young adults are expected to justify their reasons for using the car. Usually, they must explain where they are going, with whom, and for how long. After all is said and done, the parent sometimes still says no. When asking to borrow her mother's car, Lucena explains that sometimes, "They would be like; 'No you can't take the car,' but it wouldn't be like for punishment; it's just that they didn't want me to. They didn't feel like it [laughs]."

Sometimes parents were unwilling to let them use their car and also unwilling to allow them to utilize public transit, one of the only viable alternatives for getting around for those without a car. A number of middle-class parents perceived public transit to be unsafe, though mistakenly since the city's public transportation was well known for its untarnished record of safety. This was the case for Lenny, who in the end was able to use this as means to negotiate for his own car. "My parents didn't want me to use the bus, it's not safe, but they didn't always want to give me a ride so 'well if you don't want to give me a ride I'm just gonna use the bus and ... give me a ride if you don't want me to use the bus.'"

The largest obstacle young adults face in negotiating to borrow a parent's car is the parent's busy schedule. Consider Natasha's comments:

I needed the car and my mom needed a car for work and it was kind of getting difficult where you know if she needed the car on her days off and I would have to revolve my schedule around her and stuff. ... I was sharing it. It was like between me, my mom and my sister and like, the way it was set up was my sister would carpool with her friend to school and that would be the days that my mom would take it to work and then a couple of days it would be home because my mom needed to run errands or whatnot.

Demands on parents outside the home represent a significant hurdle for young adults as they struggle for autonomy and freedom. This is a fact of modern family life, since most adult family caretakers are also wage earners. Marisol explains, "I started driving because I needed a ride to go to school and they [her parents] can't take me to school, so that's why I started driving. [But] um I can only go to school and back home and they, if they wanted me to do some, like, run some errands or something, they will give me the car."

Time spent away from family, whether at work or school or involved in extracurricular and leisure pursuits, for both parents and their children is substantial and thus complicates teens' efforts to gain access to the family car (Kincheloe 1997). Jorge, who was eventually given his own car for these very reasons, points out, "All of us are so busy. Since I got my own car, we're like three units. 'Cause we have our own work. My mom works in Oakland now. I do all my stuff at school like I said, so I don't get home until 5 or 6. My dad doesn't get home until 6 or 7. We all arrive home at different times we do our own things on the weekend." Jorge's scenario is increasingly common. His parents both work full-time, each commuting well over an eighty-mile stretch each day, and Jorge's life is swamped by the demands of school and extracurricular activities. For middle- and upper-middle-class children struggling to gain an edge in what could only be described as the ever-increasing competitive marketplace of high-stakes education, all of this is a matter of course (Lareau 2003; Proweller 1998).

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