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Driving IS a Privilege
Published: Friday, July 20, 2012

By: Dr. Michael Aisenberg, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Michael Aisenberg, Psy.D. (aka "Dr. A") is a bilingual/bicultural (Spanish/Argentine), licensed clinical psychologist who received his doctorate from the Illinois School of Psychology after obtaining a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He brings over 20 years experience working with clients of all ages in facilitating growth, improvement and change.

He recently attended a group discussing teen driving. His comments are good fuel for any conversation you have with your teen.

It was an odd collection of participants -- downstate governmental bureaucrats, state troopers, assistant attorney general for the state, university adjunct faculty and sundry others. They were assembled as part of a training seminar for substance abuse treatment professionals, teaching them the essentials of working with folks who had been convicted of driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (DUI).

The state trooper was warm and engaging and informative. He spoke of field sobriety tests and entrapment and faking and crimes. He gave humorous, albeit disturbing, examples of the lengths to which intoxicated drivers would go to deny their state of consciousness.

The university staff spoke of statistics. She was a bright and articulate person. She spoke of data related to driving while intoxicated. She, too, spoke about crime, and discussed what assessment/evaluation procedures were required, by law, for those convicted of the crime.

The assistant attorney general was tall and serious. He spoke at length about the law – those that defined the crimes of DUI as well as those that defined the assessment/evaluation and the treatment that must be completed to expunge one’s records.

And then it happened. I heard what were to be the most important few words that served to organize not only the two days of training, but also my whole orientation toward the activity of driving. The quiet, serious, somewhat awkward representative from the Secretary of State’s office simply said: “Driving is a privilege.” He repeated it several times, in part for effect, in part because he must have sensed that we weren’t, at first, grasping the magnitude of his point. He spoke, at length, about how driving is NOT a right accorded to citizens, like voting or privacy. It is a privilege that is first earned and then maintained through an ongoing understanding and demonstration of safety, for ourselves and for others.

It occurred to me, having spent the better part of 20 years treating adolescents and their families, that what I was hearing was not very different than what I had been advocating in the homes of hundreds of families, all of whom presented similar issues/concerns. “How late should my son’s curfew be?” “Can my daughter go to her friend’s house before she finishes her homework?” “Should I make an extra set of keys for the car?”

In general, the feedback I would give both adolescents and their parents/guardians is remarkably similar – Actions speak louder than words. Your daughter isn’t trustworthy because she says she’ll be home by 10:00 PM; rather, she earns trust by doing it. Your son isn’t trustworthy because he says he studied for finals; his grades will speak for themselves.

Similarly, when it comes to the monumentally important privilege of driving, words alone are not enough. No adolescent has a right to drive without first EARNING that opportunity. And, for the most part, they know that. Although it is the developmental imperative of adolescents to test limits (those of their parents as well as those of other authorities and/or institutions), it is also vital that parents understand their need to establish and maintain age-appropriate limits and boundaries around specific activities.

Driving must be one of these, as well. In my clinical work, I discuss the reality that, initially, while adolescents often see only the frustrating limits, in a very short time they can be guided to the understanding that the things they wish for can be obtained by earning them, rather than unrealistically expecting simply to receive. Driving, in this context, is no different from encouraging adolescents to work to earn their own (discretionary) spending money. No amount of unearned privilege will ever build the confidence that adolescents need as a foundation to their future sense of themselves.

Visit Dr. Aisenberg's site at to learn more. You can reach him at:

10024 Skokie Boulevard, Suite #312
Skokie, IL 60077

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