Does Your Teen Need (or Deserve) a Car?

by Dr. James G. Wellborn

A teenager’s first car. It’s the embodiment of freedom in America. It’s access to the open road. No more asking permission to use the family car. No more listening to a parent’s playlist. All teenagers deserve their own car, right? (Sound of screeching brakes) No. There is no compelling justification for teenagers to have a car of their own. They don’t deserve it because they exist, because they are your kid, as a rite of passage or because Johnny’s or Suzy’s parents got them one. If they need to get somewhere, they can walk, catch a ride with a friend, take the bus, use the family car or wait for you to drive them. 

But let’s say you get past the (not inconsiderable) challenges of purchase price, maintenance, fuel and insurance to consider gracing your teenager with a car for which he has the primary use and responsibility, but still belongs to YOU. (For the sake of brevity, it will be referred to as “his car.”). How do you figure out whether your kid actually needs one? Here are a couple of considerations. 

Absolutely not!

No productive activities that require transportation. If kids are not involved in productive or meaningful activities outside of the home (e.g., job, volunteering, organized school activities, etc.), they don’t need (or deserve) a car. It will just make it possible for them to get into trouble farther away from home. If they need a car because friends live far away, subscribe to the internet and get them a cell phone with texting capability. Nobody talks face to face any more anyway. Besides, friends are just one more source of potential problems. It’s probably better to home school them, too. 

Reliable public transportation. Having a car in the big city brings an additional set of big expenses and challenges (e.g., parking, traffic, road rage). City dwellers only need a car to travel outside the range of public transportation. Get them some mace (in areas where it is legal), teach them assertiveness skills and enroll them in a general self-defense class instead. There’s enough trouble they can get into within 3 blocks of home; no need for them to go driving to find it. 

Seems to think you owe them one. Please! Instead of purchasing a car for your entitled princes or princesses, require them to practice acts of kindness and generosity toward others until their attitude improves (e.g. 6-12 months). And just for good measure, donate some of their superfluous electronic gadgets to kids who will actually appreciate them! 

Irresponsible, risk taking behavior. Let’s see. Take kids who will run through traffic to avoid waiting 2 minutes for the crosswalk light, and put them behind the wheel of a 3000lb, self-propelled machine that travels at over 90 miles an hour? Buy them a skateboard and spend the money for a car on really good medical insurance. 

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Needs the exercise. If you can’t get your kids off the couch to go do something active, buying them a car will only make it worse. Buy them a bicycle instead. It’s cheaper, takes less maintenance and requires the expenditure of energy to operate. The only overweight people who should be able to drive themselves around in a vehicle are the people who pay the bills. 

Oh, alright.

It makes your life easier. Commitments and activities keep most parents going in several different directions from the time they get off work to the time they go to bed.  Having another driver to ferry people around can be a big help. Make sure your kids understand that one condition for having a car is to run errands or transport siblings.  Any arguments and they are back to riding shotgun. 

Hard working children. If your kids are doing well in school, have jobs or are dedicating themselves to some personal growth activities (e.g., sports, artistic development, dance, ending world hunger, etc.), a car can better enable them to participate as well as reinforce how much you value productive activities. Make sure they know why you went to all the trouble of getting them a car (and that keeping the car means they need to continue to be hardworking and productive). 

Naturally good kids. Kids who are considerate and sweet often get the raw end of the deal (compared to their whiny, arguing, annoying squeaky wheel of a sibling). A car is a great way to say how much you appreciate not having to wonder if they are going to be home by curfew, whether they are doing their homework or if the police are in the drive way yet again. Besides, they are not likely to cost you any additional expense related to accidents or traffic tickets. These kids are great when you have been blessed with one. It is worth rewarding them. 

If they cover all the expenses. Hey, if they buy it and maintain it you have little to lose. Those are self-sufficient, entrepreneurial kids who can successfully work toward a long term goal. All the qualities that will make your kids successful adults are right there. Your parenting work is pretty much done. And, given what it took for them to get the car in the first place they are unlikely to put it at risk by driving too fast or being reckless. You may even want to celebrate by pitching in to defray some of the costs.

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Well, maybe.

Living in the sticks. If there are long distances between your house and the rest of society your kids may need a car so they can interact with living, breathing people.  (On the other hand, if you moved your family out there to avoid exposure to the decay of Western civilization, a car pretty much ruins that plan.) In addition, many American suburban neighborhoods can seem like the sticks because of a lack of reliable public transportation and sprawl. Not having a car can limit teenagers' ability to participate even in healthy, productive activities. 

Independence. When your teenagers catch a ride with friends to a party they are stuck. If they get a bad feeling or things start heading in the wrong direction, it can get awkward to talk their friend into leaving or to call their mommy to come pick them up. On the other hand, if they drive, they can leave when they want to, they have social capital (i.e., they are the friend with a car) and they are required to be the designated driver (which means they have to stay sober). This rationale for getting your kids a car is extremely susceptible to abuse and manipulation if your kids find out you are considering it, so keep this one to yourself. 

There is rarely a compelling reason for getting your teens their own car. Just because everyone they know has one doesn’t make it any less of a luxury and a privilege. If they don’t seem to appreciate this, make them ride in the back seat with their younger sibling while everyone sings annoying children’s songs. Two trips under these conditions and they will do anything you ask to deserve a car of their own. Take full advantage of this powerful negotiating opportunity. 

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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families.  He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for guiding teens through their learner permit and getting (and keeping) their driving license, character issues like gratitude, life skills issues like assertiveness, life style issues like exercise and family management issues like money and jobs are among the 79 chapters on dealing with typical teenage issues.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at

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