JM Randolph

Driver’s Ed 101: The Parent Edition

Written on July 1, 2014 at 7:30 am , by

Do you know any parents who love teaching their kids to drive? Me neither. Now that my husband and I are at our official halfway point—midway through our third teen’s permit—I’ve finally reached a point of peace with it.

With the first new driver, I thought I’d be the cool, laid-back stepmom who wouldn’t stress out or raise her voice. This was before I fully grasped that the things that exasperate you about your kids around the house will exponentially exasperate you when they’re behind the wheel, because now those annoyances are dangerous and expensive.

You put your reasonably intelligent teens in the driver’s seat and it’s as if aliens have abducted them and left poorly functioning drones in their place. The girl who speaks fluent French gets the brake and gas pedals mixed up. The boy who does complex logarithmic equations in his head fails to notice when the car in front of him brakes. The volleyball star who anticipates the moves of every member of the opposing team can’t anticipate a single move by another driver.

Yet even when they lull you into a false sense of security by pretending to ignore you, it turns out your kids are always watching you.

At a four-way stop, our second teen driver stopped smoothly and took her turn in order.

 “How was that?” she asked.

 “Perfect!” I said.

 “You have the best stops out of everyone,” she explained. “You let up on the brake a little before you come to a complete stop, and then it doesn’t jerk at the end.”

That’s a habit I developed in my 20s, back when I smoked and drank coffee from an open mug while driving (stopping like that keeps the coffee from spilling). I didn’t mention this.

When the third kid got her permit, I looked back on previous experiences and accepted a few things that have made it easier:

1. The car’s going to get dinked up.

The first teen jumped the curb in our driveway, ripping off the entire undercarriage covering while her father and I watched. She then proceeded to tell us how it wasn’t her fault. The second one ignored, for three days, the fact that the car had been bombed by a pack of wild turkeys. When we demanded she wash the car, she used a steel wool pad. She’s hit the retaining wall so much that the bumper looks like it was attacked with an industrial cheese grater.

We’re in no rush to get nicer cars.

2. I will accomplish nothing by holding my Jesus handle and pressing my imaginary brake pedal.

It is far more effective to calmly point out facts:

You should brake now.
Accelerate, or you’ll get run over.
You missed the exit.

3. I will accomplish nothing good by imagining worst-case scenarios.

Instead, I bring myself back to the present moment by calmly asking questions:

What’s the speed limit here?
Are you trying to crawl up that guy’s tailpipe?

4. I will raise my voice at some point.

It’s okay to yell when they do something truly dangerous. They’re new enough to the whole driving thing that they may not understand immediate danger. Parental anger usually gets their attention.

On a recent drive, the third teen did beautifully and didn’t make a single error. But as we approached our driveway, she didn’t slow down. Before I could speak, she turned, too fast and not enough. The noise was loud and jarring. I couldn’t tell whether she hit the retaining wall or the power line pole. I tried to be angry—I pulled out the old standby, “What were you thinking!?!” but it felt as if I were playing a part. She knows what she did and she’s unlikely to make that same error again. Fortunately, she only hit the retaining wall.

Inspecting the damage, I realized I couldn’t tell new scratches from old ones, and laughed. Accepting that these things happen—and being desensitized by two previous drivers—made it suddenly funny to me.

But I didn’t laugh half as much as I’m going to when the fifth one finally gets his license and I don’t have to teach any more teens how to drive.

 

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand, and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.

When Your Kid Isn’t Ready for College

Written on June 2, 2014 at 1:12 pm , by

Pressure to get into the right college peaks in junior year. SATs are taken and retaken, colleges are visited, applications are filed and the waiting begins.

Except when your kid, like mine, isn’t ready for college.

We knew before she did that she wasn’t ready. When people hear your kid isn’t going to college right away, they want to believe her grades are bad or that she’s a troublemaker. They don’t want to know she made honor roll every single marking period, that she was captain of the volleyball team and has several AP classes on her transcript. There’s a stigma to not going to college immediately upon graduation, and if your well-qualified student isn’t going, it’s possible that theirs might not either.

The fact is that many high school seniors are entering college blindly. It’s expected of them, and their parents are paying for it. The students take out loans to make up the difference in what their parents can’t pay. Many of them have no idea what they want to major in, or else they want to major in something that will not get them a job that will enable them to pay back that student loan.

I took an informal survey of the newer people showing up in my work circles and found that it was not unusual to have $100,000 in student loan debt. I don’t work in a cutting-edge hospital where you might expect high med-school loans; I work in a theater.

My husband and I are in the midst of paying off a debt that size that has nothing to do with student loans and everything to do with getting custody of these (his) kids. I know exactly how hard it is for us to work through this mess with two incomes. People right out of school are still getting their foot in the door in our business; I have no idea how they’re making loan payments.

With our current debt, we can’t take on loans, nor do we have much of anything to contribute. Our kids know that before any college decisions are made, they need to have a plan.

If you could reduce our parenting to one motto, it would be: Take responsibility for your life. We are willing to suggest, help, guide, even cajole, but it must be the child’s plan because it’s his or her life.

In effect, each of them must answer the question, What do you want to do with your life? The plan can always change, but what is it for now?

It takes a certain level of maturity to answer that question, which is where everything broke down with kid number 2. It wasn’t just about the finances, it was emotional. She’d gone through a lot before she came to live with us; it takes time to process that. We suggested she apply to college but defer for a year. Take any job and explore some options for what she might like to do. She could take flying lessons, EMT training in the Rockies—cool experiences that could translate into marketable skills. Everything we suggested she immediately shot down. She remained frozen in a state of panic.

Finally she took to heart the idea of deferring. The emotional weight visibly lifted from her. But then she went too far the other way. By November of senior year, she still hadn’t applied anywhere. We reminded her that she wasn’t going to sit in the basement and play video games after graduation.

Midway through December we had to threaten to take away Christmas to get her to finish the Common App. At a time when most kids in her school had their acceptances, she was just beginning the process.

But as she got more wins, she gained confidence. She was accepted everywhere she applied. She received some academic awards, a couple of scholarships and consistently the highest grade in her physics class.

We continued to talk about her plan. She continued to clam up. My husband and I worried about how we could possibly get her moving. One morning in the car, I chanced bringing it up. The car is usually a good place for uncomfortable conversations (just make sure your teen isn’t the one driving). She didn’t realize she had a plan until she spoke it out loud. She had picked a school, worked out living arrangements and decided that she would work and save every dime possible until a year from September. We had no idea.

“That’s a good plan,” I said.

“It is?”

“Well, yeah, don’t you think so?”

“I didn’t think it was a plan, really. Because I don’t know where I’ll work and I’m not positive what I want to study yet.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out to start moving in that direction. Once you take a step, the next steps get clearer to you. That’s how it works.”

I snuck a glance at her and was treated to the rare sight of a smile.

“So now you just need to defer officially,” I said.

“Oh, I did that last week.”

We had been expecting to have to force that action by threatening to take away graduation. As she shared her plan with others, she found only support. Many adults chimed in about how much more valuable she will be to employers after taking this year to work and gain life experience.

I would love it if all my kids ended up graduating from college with zero debt and marketable skills that are so in demand they’re writing their own ticket in a career they are passionate about. Wouldn’t we all?

But what is absolutely essential for them to understand is that they must go into this whole college thing with their eyes open. No parent wants their kids graduating from college with $100,000 in debt, a worthless degree and no earthly idea what they want to do with their lives. Sadly, blindly going for the college experience without putting mindful thought into it will lead to exactly that.

Most likely my kids will end up somewhere between those two extremes. Wherever they go, they’re going to own the decisions that led them there. That already puts them ahead on the path of taking responsibility for their own lives.

 

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.

Hey, Kids, Guess What: Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees

Written on May 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm , by

By JM Randolph, the Accidental Stepmom

In a town where the majority of third-graders have their own iPhone (not an exaggeration), my husband and I have had a challenging time teaching our kids the connection between work and money. As in: You get paid when you work, period.

In our house, there are chores everyone is expected to do because they’re part of the family, and then there are extra-money chores. The kids have all come to degrees of understanding about this. Of course, in a family of four girls and one boy, everyone has to find their own way to stand out…which brings us to number 4.

At 14, she is the youngest girl. This is the kid who will let her ice cream melt on the table because she’s on the couch and doesn’t want to exert the effort to get up and get it.

After we’d had the “We’re not buying you iPhones or paying for a data plan” conversation about nine times, the kids figured out that nearly everything they wanted to do could be done on an iPod touch and started saving their money. One by one, they hit their goal and bought iPods.

Number 4 didn’t work and save so much as she managed to hold on to her Christmas and birthday money (they’re three months apart). This was quite a feat for her, but she felt no emotional connection to that money. She just waited, and it turned into an iPod.

A month after she got it, she cracked the screen. It still worked, sort of. She discovered she could exchange it with $100 for a refurbished one. With ample opportunity to earn extra money, it still took her over six months to save up. Somehow she made no connection between working and earning.

When I took her to the store she learned about tax, which I covered (I’m not that wicked). And all went well…until she broke it again a few months later.

With the charger cable stretched within an inch of its life across the main entrance to the living room, the iPod balanced precariously on the arm of the loveseat. It fell when her 11-year-old brother predictably ran into the room and tripped over the cable. The iPod’s power input broke off and it could no longer be charged.

I came up with an aggressive four-week earning plan for her, hoping that this time it would take and she would finally know the rewards of a job well done.

We made a list of weekly chores with dollar amounts. There would be a bonus each week if she did all of them, and an extra bonus if she did all four weeks in a row. I added on a special, one-time-only chore of picking up some trash on the property adjacent to ours to cover the sales tax.

After the iPod, this would be her regular thing. She’d have her own money for her Starbucks habit and whatever else she wanted. She seemed all for it.

But she forgot about it for a few days, and then it snowed and the trash was buried. Her friends harassed her to do the chores because they were tired of not being able to group chat. Six weeks later, she finally began.

The week after she got her iPod replaced, when I reminded her she still could earn money if she did her chores she said, “Nah, I don’t want to work.”

Interesting thing about these chores: When they aren’t done for money on the weekend, they become mandatory chores done for free during the week.

Once the snow melted, her little brother asked if he could pick up the trash for extra money. He filled five trash bags in half an hour and earned $15. He invested half in supplies for a lemonade stand for when it gets warmer, bought some candy and held on to the rest.

Last week, number 4 walked into my room holding her iPod with a brand-new set of cracks running up the screen.

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand, and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.