Real Life Relationships: The joy and heartbreak of teaching my Black teenage son to drive

Faced with the task of teaching her son to drive, Larhonda Welch Little was also forced to confront the emotions they both felt about race, identity and policing.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Faced with the task of teaching her son to drive, Larhonda Welch Little was also forced to confront the emotions they both felt about race, identity and policing.

Real Life Relationships is a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the attendant emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger — those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.”

By any standard, the events we have witnessed in the past year and a half have been, in a word, horrifying. Yet, I can say that being home and looking at my two sons every day, all day has been a distinct joy. Because we opted for them to go to school virtually during the pandemic, I could talk to them and teach them in ways that would not have been possible under normal circumstances. My work as an academic and pastor allowed me the flexibility to be home with them as life continued to unfold.

While COVID-19 related deaths ravaged the globe and protests against the persistent unjust deaths of Black and other people of color raged, my sons continued to grow and mature. They were watching the same news events as myself and their father. They saw the videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery; they heard the heartbreaking story of Breonna Taylor; they saw what happened on Jan. 6. As these stories and many others revealed the consciousness of America, my 14- and 16-year-old sons grew taller, and their voices deepened.

My heart swelled and broke at the same time.

My older son, like most teenagers his age, is learning how to drive. For better or worse, the short and long end of the stick for teaching him that rite of passage is mine. Not because of any conscious decision my partner and I made, it just made sense given the dynamics of our home. I am the daily, on-call chauffeur. When it became clear that I would take on this responsibility, I devised a plan that would unfold in stages.

First, I would teach my son the inside of the car — the difference between the gas pedal and the brake. Second, he would master backing out of the driveway and driving back in. Next, we would drive around the subdivision before he started driving on the main road. Finally, we would tackle parallel parking and the highway.

Each stage carried another level of responsibility and stress.

I thought I factored in all possible scenarios. But when my son got behind the wheel during the driving-on-the-main-road phase, I did not consider the myriad of emotions that would play out on his face and throughout his body. The concentration on his face as he gripped the steering wheel and the tension in his shoulders filled me with compassion. Before my eyes, I witnessed a child growing into the adult task of learning to drive.

My son, in those moments, was not an eager teenager, but a conscientious human being.

I was struck by the difference between how I view my son as his mother and how someone else he may encounter might view him. If he was pulled over would the officer see him as a nervous, young driver or paint him as a guilty criminal? If my son were to get in an accident, would the other party recognize him as a fellow human being given to mistakes? In our country as it is, fraught with political strife and plagued by systemic injustices, could my son remain calm in a stressful situation?

Statistics show that Black and Latino men are far more likely to experience discretionary searches during a traffic stop than any other race-gender group, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. The same study shows that Black identity is not only incriminating, but also safeguarding — departments who have Black police chiefs have lower rates of car searches.

Given the numbers, chances are very good that my sons, or anyone who raises a male child of color (because the statistics among Latino men are similar), will be pulled over depending on the location of the incident. The nature of these searches is based on the assumption of guilt, especially in areas known to be over-policed.

The landscape of American culture, in general, and Black culture, specifically, is its own study in contradictions. In our culture today, there is the belief that Black bodies were created to perform and not think or feel.

Black bodies are created to obey and not to resist.

Black bodies are created to submit to the whims and fancies of others to the detriment of their health.

But until America allows one’s humanity to take precedence over public persona and capitalistic obligations, unconscious bias and systemic racism will persist as political, social and economic drivers. The lack of society’s ability to recognize the nuances of our cultural wares and social privileges will continue to stunt progress in ways that ultimately benefit everyone. Such lack of awareness, such refusal to evolve, causes widespread wariness of how we may be perceived by one another.

At the core of our human existence is the need to be seen, heard and accepted. When I look at my son behind the wheel of a car, I see a child who wants to get it right.

I see someone who, above his desire to earn another tier of freedom, values human life.

I see someone who is vulnerable to the prejudices of the world, despite my best efforts to teach him the rules of the road. To be kind. To be courteous.

I see someone for whom I have so much respect that I realize the projection of my own fears is detrimental to his being.

Through my son, I have learned that fear is a terrible driver. I had to learn that respect and calmness are far more effective. Which is why I decided to take a brave step and ask my son directly, how did he feel about driving given the current social climate?

As I braced myself for his response, he said, “It’s a risk. Whatever I do is a risk. And I have to be OK with being more respectful than most other people.”

His resolve is heartening and heartbreaking. But my hope is that we may all take the risk of seeing, hearing and accepting.

Lahronda Welch Little is an adjunct professor at Candler School of Theology-Emory University and a minister in the United Methodist Church. Lahronda lives in the Atlanta area with her spouse and their two sons.