The Watchdog frets about his son’s new driver’s license and car

The Watchdog is supposed to be infallible, impervious to supervillains, shoddy corporations and disappearing refrigerator repairmen. But I have one vulnerability that leaves me with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and resignation.

It’s not battling an electric company or arguing with a cellphone company. Much worse than that. My vulnerability involves someone I cherish, now permitted under law to insert himself inside a 3,246-pound machine and hurl himself along a superhighway at speeds approaching 70 mph.

Last week, my youngest son, the 16-year-old, got his driver’s license.

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With that, my lack of control and helplessness truly begins. As The Watchdog, I’m not used to this. I know how to take care of business. Make sure things go right. Fix them when they go wrong.

Take on a powerful corporation? No problem. Stand up to formidable politicians? Child’s play. But give my youngest kid a driver’s license and a car and suddenly, that’s me — a howling watchdog with no more bite. He’s free, and I can’t be around all the time to protect, to scold, to nurture, to watchdog him anymore.

Before you think my fears are overblown, know that Austin, my beautiful son, has already set a world record of sorts involving his new car and an auto body repair shop. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

My two older children received their licenses and first cars in the pre-9/11 era. It’s different now. Getting a license has become an ordeal, apparently part of Homeland Security’s desire to keep licenses out of the hands of terrorists and scammers.

Instructions are overly complicated. There are too many forms (the DE-964, DL-92 and the ever-popular DL-90b). Supplemental documentation resembles what’s needed for a home loan.

The PTDE packet was nearly my undoing. That’s the Parent Taught Driver Education packet. Otherwise known as the PWJOCW for Parents Wanting to Jump Out of the Car Window. The inventor of Parent Taught Driver Ed also probably invented waterboarding.

Our nighttime lessons took place after I came home from work. They’d begin the same way every time. He’d pull out of the driveway and I’d say, “You forgot to turn on the headlights.”

He’d say, “It’s not the end of the world.”

“You left the garage door open.”

“Dad, it’s not the end of the world!”

Watching a teen learn to drive is probably funny if it’s someone else’s kid. But when it’s your own, it IS the end of the world.

Hanging on fearfully to the passenger side door during sharp turns, I began to understand that a new driver’s license serves as the main doorway into adulthood. This is where a watchdogging parent must learn to give it up.

His mother and I have done what we can. We purchased a safe, dependable used car for him and signed him up for proper insurance. We bought him an associate membership in AAA, taught him how to use his new debit card at a gas pump, lectured him about tow-away zones, red-light cameras, suburban speed traps and the most important challenge: how to remember where you put your car keys.

At the end of our lessons, once we were back safely in the garage, I always tried to end on a positive note.

“Good job, son. You forgot to turn off the lights.”

“It’s not the end of the world.”

My son named his car after a favorite character in the movie The Hangover. Previously, I mentioned that Austin and Mr. Chow together set a world record of sorts — the fastest time for a new driver to send his car to the body shop for repairs. In my son’s case, before he even drove his car, he put a hurt on Mr. Chow.

Poor Mr. Chow had barely entered his new home before my beautiful son closed the garage door on his back bumper. A $500 repair — before the car left the house.

Yes, as a parent watchdog for my children, I have this vulnerability that leaves me helpless. But I’m looking for a sign that he and Mr. Chow will make a good team.

I found one. On New Year’s Day, my son hosted five friends for a sleepover. At 3 a.m., when the boys were still up talking. Austin left to go to his job. Every day before sunrise, he cleans a neighborhood restaurant before it opens for business.

That’s real responsibility for any 16-year-old. I’m proud of him for that. I know in my heart that it’s time to let the bird fly.
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