I don't need to tell you, but children are utterly convinced of their place behind the wheel. It doesn't matter what vehicle you put them in, their first and best instinct is: I've got this, hand me the keys, Marjory, I'm taking this jalopy for a spin. We visited an amusement park on the weekend, and my son, being only tall enough for the petite rides, of which there were only three, spent the entire day — the entire day — riding a truck around in a circle. When I tried to accompany him onto the truck ride, he told me "no, you sit in your own truck," climbed into the cab, shut the door, and drove off.
I've witnessed similar behavior from his suburban counterparts. On a magical visit to a sub-development out where Denver's office farms turn into prairie, a friend raised his (double) garage door to reveal a motorized red Maserati convertible the exact right size for his then-4-year-old and 2-year-old. The 4-year-old hopped into the driver's seat, reversed out of the garage, waved for her little sister to hop in, and the two pulled off down the sidewalk, cruising to the end of the cul de sac, eyes on the road, without giving a single f*ck about the adults watching on. It was a bitching summer, and they were going for a ride in their car, which of course they had and used (doesn't everyone have a car, why don't I get a car, where is my pink electric replica Jeep?).
The marvel of children driving tiny machinery is something we don't stand back to enjoy nearly enough.
I think about this episode often, and not just because it represents, in part, the parental dream of "my job here is done" (which if your kid can reverse park, it somewhat is), but because it challenges our firmly held belief that children are tiny Sideshow Bobs, at risk at any given moment of stepping on any number of rakes, and completely incapable of executive thought inside their giant, adorable bobble heads. That is how we, the helicopter parents of 2019, see our kids. It is, I'm sorry. But it wasn't always that way.
Just ask the kids who held down solid jobs driving horses in Victorian England, or those alive during the heydey of early 20th century Detroit; a time in which the car was the ultimate status item: "One family was driven around Detroit by their 11-year-old son," reported the Detroit News in a retrospective on the "dangerous" era. "It was common for light truck delivery wagons to be driven by 14-year-old boys who were constantly badgered to get deliveries done by driving faster." For the record, many of the farm kids I went to school with were also driving flatbeds and tractors around as nippers, in part because "eh, there's not much to crash into," on a farm, "except trees," a friend once told me. Kids driving cars is a genre I am here for, and one that perhaps peaked earlier this year when, as USA Today reported, "A Minnesota toddler drove himself to the county fair in his toy tractor." He did so safely, I note. And the kicker: "Police found him at the Tilt-A-Whirl."
Yes, neuroscientists might argue that cognitive risk assessment is a work in progress up until about age 27, and that, no, children should not have driving licenses, but that mostly just makes me question the driver's licenses we do give out. My grandmother, too, firmly believed in her right to pilot a Volvo at a good clip, right up to the moment she pulled out at a green light into the side of an ambulance, whose siren was blaring at full volume. After that, she took taxis.
The opportunity for them to — briefly! — put the shifter in drive and head on down the road might be one of the greatest things we give them in childhood.
The point is that the marvel of children driving tiny machinery is something we don't stand back to enjoy nearly enough. Stuck in a world that plucks all the bubble wrap from kids' hands and replaces lollipops with carrots, the opportunity for them to — briefly! — put the shifter in drive and head on down the road might be one of the greatest freedoms we give them in childhood (after Maslow's pyramid of the obvious). It is why, good god, I shall be taking my children to Diggerland at my earliest convenience. It is why, yes, I will sometimes let them sit in the front seat pretending to drive while my husband runs around Trader Joe's, even if, goddammit, they might abuse that freedom by inserting coins from the console into the CD player during one of those moments of indulgence, a crime that costs $200 in mechanic's fees to stop the speakers from crackling every time we go around a corner. They are not perfect! But children deserve a (pretend) turn behind the wheel.
We all agree on this: it is why we complain about the price of seltzer, and then turn around and spend $200 on a miniature Tesla for our 3-year-olds. It explains the race-car beds and the race-car shoes and the race-car wheelie suitcase that is now in my home. I don't know how I got this way, but all I want in this life is to see my son driving a roller across some satisfyingly chunky gravel. Which he will be the first to tell you he could do.
For more pieces like this, visit Shiny Happies, our collection of the best parts of raising those little people you love.