Summing Up The Qulaity Of Family Life

What can we learn about the dynamics of contemporary domestic life from young adults' talk about cars and driving? The preceding discussion illustrates how young men and young women negotiate freedom and responsibility in relation to car use. Their talk reveals their location in the complex web of people and places within which family life is located. Two themes emerge. The first relates to the importance of gender in organizing family rules and roles. The second theme highlights the importance of social class in contemporary transformations of family life.

Gender organizes teenage children's lives in family contexts, even at a time when gender differences are ostensibly diminishing. Teenage children play an active and meaningful role in family decision-making. Still, one cannot help but notice that girls' voices concerning cars and driving were often more muted than boys'. Girls are frequently subject to tighter control and experience more and greater sanctions for normative violations, including those involving cars and driving. Recall the young women who saw themselves as having little negotiating power with their parents or the number of young women who constructed elaborate stories to avoid getting in trouble at home. Recall also that girls were subject to a more rigid set of rules around driving than were boys. The point here is that gender often influences the way family decisions are made. In this sense, gender plays a subtle, sometimes hidden role in family "democracy" that deserves sustained attention if we are to understand the ways in which our lives inside and outside family are constructed.

Social class is also relevant to our discussion of kids, cars, and family life. A family's economic context is a major influence on how much freedom and responsibility go along with cars and driving. The decisions parents and their teen children make together reflect a set of class arrangements that play out in how teenagers are asked to use their driving "privileges" (De Vault 1991; Hertz 1986; Lareau 2003). Lower-income families depend heavily on their teenage children to cope with the economic and time demands of living in a changing America where "getting by" for millions of families often requires holding two jobs, working long hours, and spending less time with families. For upper-middle-class families, a car may be given to a teen child as a luxury or a sign of independence. For families that are less well off, a car may represent more responsibility than freedom.


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Discussion Questions

1. Sometimes we don't really think much about how cars affect family life. How does driving and car ownership affect teens' roles in family life and their relationships with adult family members?

2. In what ways do we see gender roles formed in relation to cars and driving? How do sons' and daughters' lives differently play out in relation to cars?

3. In what ways do changes in the social and economic life of families shape how teens and their parents handle driving privileges and responsibilities? How does social class shape car privileges and car responsibilities for teens?

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