02/10/2015 04:50 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2015

Should You Force Your Teen to Learn to Drive?


Last week, I wrote about my feelings after my youngest child got her driver's license here. My article brought up something among quite a few mothers I talked with: what if your teenager refuses to get a driver's license?

When I was a teen, getting a driver's license was a big deal. Most of us got one the second we could, which, in New Jersey, is 17. We went on our birthdays and most of us passed and then we were off and driving. I remember my mother taking me to get mine, and then me dropping her off at home and driving myself to school, late, thinking how weird it was not to have someone in the passenger seat beside me.

Now, it seems, a lot of teens either just don't care or are actually afraid to drive. So they don't do it.

My daughter is one of the first of her friends to get a driver's license. Most of her friends don't turn 17 for a few more months, but many who have turned 17 still don't have theirs. And it doesn't seem to matter to them. I have other friends who say their teens feel unsure or uncomfortable about driving, so they haven't forced the issue. They want safe drivers, and if their teens are nervous, they feel, that could cause distracted or incompetent driving. So they aren't pushing them.

One mother of a 2-year-old admitted to me that her daughter is terrified to drive and has refused to get her license. She believes her daughter will need cognitive behavioral therapy to become a licensed driver, which she plans on initiating this summer when she comes home from college.

So should you force your teen to drive? My feeling is that learning to drive is necessary. Unless you live in a city like New York - and even if you do - you are likely to need to drive at some point, even if it is just in an emergency, and driving is as an important life skill as learning to handle money or doing laundry or grocery shopping. To me, not getting a license could be a way to keep kids child-like.

When should you force your teen to drive? Here in NJ, teens can't get a permit until 16 and can't get a probationary license until 17. For us, this is good timing. I don't (personally) think most 16 year olds are ready to drive on their own, but by 17, the brain seems to have matured enough to at least start to drive.

I'm going to throw down a gauntlet. There's no reason why most teens shouldn't have licenses by 18. They may not have to or want to drive, or you may be worried about their driving and try to limit it, but they should be proficient enough to pass the state exam and be able to drive if the need arises. And I'll go further and say I think it's up to the parents to push their teen to reach this point, whether that means cajoling or forcing or insisting. Parents can refuse to drive their kids places. They can make a license a requirement of being part of the household.

Driving is one of the major milestones of growing up; it signals independence and adulthood and moving away. Even with a healthy dose of fear, we, as parents, should embrace this time and we should encourage our kids to embrace it, too.