Passenger Parenting

You never see the big moments coming. Life kind of just moves and then suddenly something changes. In those moments you realize that the categories you held close, the ones that made sense of things, no longer apply.

I had one of those life moving, category shifting moments a few weeks ago. I should have seen it coming. She was obviously changing and growing. The girl was fading, the woman becoming. I overheard her talking while in her online driver’s education course. I listened as she recounted her first harrowing experience on the freeway with a stranger, a driving instructor in the passenger seat. I saw the learner’s permit she now carries in the back of her pink phone case. All of this should have clued me in that big things were changing. They didn’t. My category for my daughter simply couldn’t hold them. She is my little girl. I take her places. She needs me to navigate the world. She needs me to cut the edges off of her peanut butter and jelly. How could she be old enough to drive?

And then it happened. She climbed into the driver’s seat. I slid into the passenger’s seat. We buckled up. I gripped the handle next to the door made for parent’s in this very situation. My knuckles were white I think. She asked, “Daddy are you okay?” “I will be.” I replied. She pulled out onto the road and right then it hit me, “Things are different now.” It’s not just that she’s learning to drive. She’s learning to leave. And that’s a beautiful and gut wrenching thing all at once. 

The other significant thing that I realized is that I’m the passenger now. In the car and in life, she’s behind the wheel. Her feet are on the pedals. She’s making big decisions, where to turn, how fast to go, and when to stop. I’m along for the ride. I don’t have any pedals. All I have is my voice and my presence. In the car I’m learning that calm, gentle, guidance is the way to sit in my new seat. “You might want to think about slowing down now.” I hear myself saying. She glances at me, a little smile, nervous eyes shoot my way and then back on the road. I’m still in the car. She needs me there. But I have to let her drive.

This sudden realization that my little girl is the driver and I the passenger blew apart my categories of parent and child. With shocking clarity I had the epiphany that my orientation to being her Dad needed to mirror my role in her training to drive.

There are three principles I’m trying hard to remember right now:

  1. My best posture is as a non-anxious presence. Be in the car.
  2. My time in this seat is short. One day soon she will drive off without me. This time is a gift.
  3. Encourage more than I criticize. She needs to borrow my courage right now.

I’ll admit that sliding into the passenger seat in her life still doesn’t feel right sometimes. She talks about her day, the people she knows, the things she is doing, and I want to grab the wheel. Sometimes I still do but I’m learning to let go and just be there. In the car and in life.

2 thoughts on “Passenger Parenting

  1. Jen Zais says:

    I love these sentiments, Gabe. I’m in the exact same spot with my oldest, and this advice deeply resonates with me. Thank you!!

    • Gabriel K Smith says:

      Thanks so much for reading and encouraging Jen. Blessings to you on your parenting journey!

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