At the moment, automobiles are very much on my mind. This morning I called into my study a boy who had been speeding through the Close.* At lunch, I spoke to the boys about driving to and from football games, reminding them I wanted to see all of them on Monday morning — in one piece.
All of us — parents and schoolmasters alike — are concerned about cars. Some of us dread the day when our son reaches sixteen and craves a driver's license or claims having a car as a right. We are all anxious when our sons are out driving or being driven. Those of us with vivid imaginations spend some troubled moments whenever our son is not in the house at precisely the moment we think he should be. Yet it is of no use to hope that our boy will not request a license. He will, and he ought to have one. It is also useless to worry when he is out driving or to nag him continually about safe driving habits. Automobiles are very much with us, both as a bane and as a blessing, and every driver needs to know how to drive carefully and well. Our job as parents and schoolmasters is to instill a sense of responsibility about the use of cars. If that responsibility is not accepted, or if it is violated, then we should take action — decisive action.
We are currently investigating offering a driving course at St. Albans. Perhaps it seems natural to include such a course in our curriculum. In the past I have tended to be unsympathetic towards such courses on the grounds that schools are taking on more and more of the responsibilities of living and failing to do that special job for which they exist — that of providing sound academic training. Schools are often called upon to teach everything from habits of cleanliness to good manners, until their primary reasons for being are forgotten or neglected. If we cannot fit such a course into our curriculum, I strongly urge each of you to arrange for your son to take a driving course at a driver-training school. He will learn much, both in theory and practice, that you as a parent cannot give him.
Next, let's set the record straight about whether your son really needs a car. For some parents, the problem is solved by a factor that brooks no argument — finances. For others, the answer is not so easy. Your son ought to have a car if he is ready for it and needs it. We all know how we can rationalize ourselves into believing we need what we want: we must recognize this tendency both in ourselves and in our sons. As I see it, a car is needed in the following instances: if it is otherwise awkward for you to get your son to school; if family strain can be eased; if life is made more comfortable or time gained for more fruitful living. Your son ought not, however, to have a car if it is a plain luxury. Although he might earn enough money to buy a car, I would be opposed simply to giving him one. He ought never to have a car because "everyone else has one." Everyone doesn't have a car. Fewer than a quarter of our Sixth Formers have one, including those to whom it is a genuine necessity for transportation. A larger number are occasionally permitted to drive to school in their parents' cars. By far the great majority of students are permitted to use the family car(s) only for special occasions. Do not buy your boy a car until you can afford it, until you think he can handle it well, or until you think for some good reason he should have one.
Now a word about the kind of car. In writing this, I don't want to step on anyone's toes, although I wouldn't hesitate to do so if I thought I were right. Fortunately, I think I have arrived at that age when I realize I am sometimes wrong! I would hesitate to buy my son one of the fancy new foreign sports cars. I doubt that they are as safe on our American roads as they are on English or continental roads, and I doubt that they offer as much protection as do conventional American cars. I must confess I would like to have such an automobile. These cars look quite attractive, and I would like to zip, even zoom, along the road. But I would not buy one for myself or for my children, not only because I do not trust myself or them, but also because I can't control other drivers on the road.
Even as I write this I realize you can't take all the danger out of life. Many things are more important than being safe. We are too much concerned with security these days. Life must be measured in terms of quality, not quantity. For a boy who has that rare common sense and good judgment bestowed on so few of us, perhaps a sports car or convertible is justified—for the rest of us, no. Now let's consider the other end of the spectrum — jalopies. If your youngster is mechanically minded and likes to tear down and rebuild rather than to drive, fine. But don't trust the life of your son and his friends to anything less than the safest car modern industry can provide.
When your son does have the right car and has learned to drive carefully, don't worry about him too obviously or unnecessarily; don't be a backseat driver; and, finally, don't nag him. On the other hand, don't allow your boy to drive with someone who is not responsible. A car in the hands of an immature or irresponsible driver is a violently dangerous weapon not only to the driver but also to the public.
The best that we parents can do in life is to provide our children with the finest equipment possible in the way of inner resources and then encourage them to meet life on their own terms. We can be on the sidelines, always ready to offer assistance as requested or to interfere on those rare occasions when we must. However, to interfere continually, to convey even unconsciously our worries and anxieties, is to be less than a good parent. I should have one. I don't mean to say that I wouldn't clamp down hard when necessary. If your son does not handle a car responsibly, I am all for taking it away or for taking any other necessary action. Few teenagers are all-wise; most need some guidance — even guidance that is in the spirit of "the rod."
We do, however, need to avoid communicating anxiety and tension to our offspring. Thus, the rules for driving I have been speaking about will be kept not through any nagging or unpleasant insistence on our part, but through a spirit that is in us and communicates itself to our young people. We shall know that spirit and our young people will know it as we and they come into the presence of Him who died that all might have life and have it more abundantly.
* The Close: The area bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, 34th Street, Garfield Street, and Woodley Road. It includes the Washington National Cathedral, National Cathedral School, St. Albans, Beauvoir, and the College of Preachers.
Letter dated: November 4, 1953
This letter was printed in Letters from a Headmaster's Study by Charles Martin.