My first car was a gray Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. It featured no air conditioning and broken power steering. It offered only the last gasps of its life, thanks to having been previously driven by my dad and my older brother.
Call it what you like. A “junker.” A “clunker.” A “jalopy.” Predictably, it lasted only a week for me.
I had not thought of that first car until the wound was ripped back open as I car-shopped with our household’s first teen driver – my son, Yosef.
Some piece of the family savings will be invested into a vehicle for Yosef. I do not, though, know if I should be buying a “junker” or more reliable car.
Weighing the options
A few aspects of this choice weigh on me.
First, I plan to have Yosef help us with family logistics in a very limited capacity. In emergencies, for example, he’ll be asked to pick up his other siblings from practice or school.
Second, Yosef is growing up in a much bigger pond than I did. Drivers are crazier. Cars are everywhere. Also, he will be traveling virtually no two-lane streets to get to his regular destinations. Offsetting my worry is that most of Yosef’s activities are located a walkable distance from our home.
My son’s safety – the safety of any child – is a parent’s top priority. To me, buying a clunker is just fine if we have faith in it providing adequate safety. Please parents, do not fall into the trap of “safety shaming” others with kids driving old cars. Assuming the doors are not coming off in transit, the only safety issue we may run into is changing a tire roadside (or calling us from the driver’s seat to ask us to).
Something is alluring about providing our kids with substandard quality, though. Maybe this is the “old man” coming out, but isn’t ushering a junkie car to its grave a rite of passage for teens? It is good for young people to deal with over-heating just as they will about door dings, or that musty smell from generations of wear and tear.
Additionally, a new driver should be grateful for any car – even a piece of junk — right? My son’s track record of taking care of items, like most teens, is not spectacular, which also weighs on me.
Creating a first-car partnership
With the decision now imminent that we will be providing a vehicle to Yosef, finding the right formula of safety and accountability lands on me.
We had discussed purchasing a vehicle as 50/50 partners with Yosef – matching each dollar he saved. While that is fair, this relinquishes some control for us and accountability for Yosef. With busy family lives, we cannot devote the energy to being true partners our kids’ choices while driving, or have equal say in the rules before, during and after a trip.
After noodling on this for far too long, the solution we have arrived at is:
- we buy and own the vehicle
- Yosef pays a “security deposit” to us. He gets it back if the car’s condition is maintained; it’s lost if it is not.
This arrangement allows for our direct control of the vehicle. That stops Yosef from treating it like his bedroom – a messy, stinky disaster.
As with most big parenting decisions, time will tell if this solution works. Right now, though, I remain at home with the sinking feeling. No security deposit, no fancy new car, and certainly no smiling 16-year-old looking at us as he waves goodbye through a windshield will provide an adequate remedy.
I will have provided in the best way I know how.
That is all I can do.
Until I shift my focus and call my car insurance provider for a quote.
Tips on your child’s first car
Whether new or used, Consumer Reports recommends these safety features at a minimum for a teen driver’s first car:
- Antilock brake system (ABS)
- Electronic stability control (ESC)
- Head-protecting side airbags
- Backup camera
Parents should also check the car’s crash-test scores from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
CarFax recommends looking at cars with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone app integration, either wireless or via a USB plug, as those can help keep teen drivers from picking up their phones while driving.