Learning to Drive & Everyday Ethics

One of the things I say to newly separated or divorced parents who are navigating the new and often painful waters of co-parenting with an ex-spouse is that it is sometimes harder to do than parenting as an only parent.

This is a bit counterintuitive, and often people try to dissuade me.  Still I have found it to be true to my experience.

As an only parent, I didn’t have to mourn the loss of my children half the week, or every other night or week, however it gets negotiated.  I didn’t have to experience the draining transitions from being on to being off to being on again as a parent – being on all the time seemed easier (except when it was not).  As an only parent, though all the responsibility fell heavily on my shoulders, it relieved me of the complicated obligation of negotiation and compromise, or even capitulation.

Of course, it kinda really deeply sucked that I had very little me-time and only one income to raise my kids (though the adoption subsidy helped enormously; my deep sense of economic scarcity would have been a barrier to this whole adventure without it).  It was exhausting and often demoralizing and required sacrifices I tried to anticipate but did not always encounter with grace or generosity.

Now that I am married, and there is a step-parent in the household, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks (the power differential in negotiating with a step-parent is qualitatively different, so my illusion of control continues).  It helps, too, that my kids are older teenagers; they still need parenting but it’s a different style to which I am still awkwardly accustoming myself.  Yet there are still moments of compromise and concession that leave me longing for my earlier days of parenting on my own.

For instance: teaching my daughter to drive.  We humans learn to drive long before we actually get our driver’s permit and are being explicitly taught to drive.  We learn by watching others, especially those who drive us frequently, such as, say, to school every morning.  My husband’s workday starts just after my daughter’s high school starts, so he is the primary driver.

Let it be entered into the record that my husband and I have different driving styles.  His understanding of the behavior required at a stop sign, especially in our residential neighborhood, is similar to mine in the way that third-cousins-twice-removed are related.  There is no stop in his rolling stop.

ImageIt reminds me of a story my Ethics professor (who also happens to be the president of my seminary) told today.  She was living an Brazil at the time, teaching a friend to drive.  He was at the wheel, approaching a stop sign, with no apparent inclination to stop.  She was shouting, “Stop!  It’s a stop sign!  You’re supposed to stop!” to which he replied, “This is Brazil.  A stop sign is not a directive, it’s a suggestion,” as he continued along the road.

My professor told this story as she was trying to teach us the different insights into ethical life: through goals (teleological), through rules (deontological), or through virtues (areteological).  She was trying to explain how a deontological approach to ethics – making rules the guide to deciding how to live an ethical life – can seem to be cut and dry (all you have to do is follow the rules) – but is, in fact, highly contextual and in many ways, culturally saturated.  For her, a stop sign was a rule.  A good driver – an ethical driver – stops when encountering a stop sign.  Her friend: not so much.

All this is my long-winded way of saying that ethics is in our every day.  It’s not some high-falutin’ big-wordy irrelevant and removed world.  It’s here and now, every day, nearly all the time.  It’s how we drive and how we teach driving.


This finally became clear to me when my daughter got her license after six months of learning and practicing on her permit.  She had gone through a driving school, which is typical where we live.  It costs money, but they don’t offer driver’s ed at the high school like they did when I was growing up in rural Oregon.

(My driver’s ed teacher’s name was Slick.  He was well named as his hair was oiled to a perfect unperturbed shape and he was just a little bit creepy.)

The driving school offers to set up driving tests with the testers from the Registry of Motor Vehicles on a couple Saturdays each month.  Of course, there is a substantial additional fee, but these test slots are more convenient to schedule and require less waiting.  Plus, since we have a car with a foot emergency brake, rather than an e-brake in-between the two front seats, we had to find another car to conduct the driving test in. So I coughed up the extra money.

I left my daughter to her nervous waiting to take the test.  When she called a half hour later, she announced she had passed!  As we drove away, she ceding the wheel to me because she was too excited to drive, she told me about the test.  She was asked to show hand signals for turning right, left, then stop.  She demonstrated her ability to parallel park and to do a three-point turn.   She conveyed the vehicle out of the parking lot of the school, drove it a quarter of a block, and returned.

That was the whole of her test.  Even she knew this was not right.

So we talked about the ethics of how our access to money to pay the additional fee to do the test at her driving school, instead of at the RMV, bought us not only convenience and less waiting time, it allowed her a lower threshold to demonstrate her driving skills.  We talked about economic privilege, how this was a prime example of that, and how often it isn’t so easy to see how one’s privilege (economic, race, gender, ability, etc.) is enacted in the world.

And yet, as people of conscience, it is so important that we see them.

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