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Does Ford’s new speed limiter turn parents into satnags? | Anne Karpf

Economic pressures mean the transition into adulthood has been extended – to the detriment of both children and parents

Time was when your 21st brought you birthday cards bearing a gold plastic key. These days, 21-year-olds and their teen siblings who can drive might find themselves fingering a different kind of key – one which controls how, and how fast, they drive.

The US-owned motor group Ford announced last week that it is extending to its European cars a feature fitted as standard in its American vehicles: one that allows parents to control the speed at which their children drive the car, along with insistent seatbelt reminders and low fuel warnings. Why, it would be just like having your parent in the car along with you – a kind of satnag. To the refrain “get out of my life” adolescents will now be able to add “get out of my car”.

Most parents could think of other technologies along these lines: a shower that turns cold after 10 minutes? A bottle of milk that beeps when it’s left out of the fridge? Of course there’s a serious side – the high rate of accidents caused by young and inexperienced drivers. And while none of us would want to make light of motoring accidents, there’s a broader point here about young people engaging in any activity: how do inexperienced people acquire experience – except through experience?

Childhood and adolescence, it used to be assumed (among middle-class people in western countries for the second half of the 20th century) were a series of milestones. There were the obvious early ones – first step, first word and first day at school. But later signposts, too, showed that you were on the road to adulthood.

Passing your driving test was one, taking a gap year another. Then there was going off to university, getting your first job, your own flat, getting married and having a child (and somewhere in there first sexual experience). The 1960s and 70s may have fiddled with the sequence of these events and added some more (like first drugs) but essentially the path from teenager to adult was reasonably clear: it was about separating from adults.

The transition between adolescence and adulthood these days is far less well-defined. Tuition fees, high unemployment, the exorbitant cost of housing – all these mean young people are financially reliant on their parents for far longer. “Youth” used to be a short transitional phase between childhood and adulthood: today it can extend to your 30s. Parents are having to plough so much money into their kids that they want a return for their investment. They also consider themselves entitled to a greater degree of involvement in their children’s decisions; after all, they’re paying for them, even though they’re less equipped than ever to give advice about the new and unprecedented social realities their offspring are facing.

The whole point about independence is that it’s gained through trial and error. Intrinsic to it is the right to mess up. You might be miserable in your gap year, or spend it mostly drunk or asleep. You might choose the wrong subject at university. It’s when they’re freed from parental control, after having had a decent length spell of dependency, that adolescents and young adults learn how to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. But if the financial penalties of bad decisions are so high and you don’t get to make small messes, chances are that eventually you’ll make a bigger one.

The other half of this maturation equation is that parents should remain in ignorance of their adolescents’ exploits – none of this “add me on Facebook” so I can see photos of you bladdered.

Parents who didn’t know what their kids got up to at crucial stages of separation were probably the better for it. Parents probably know too much about their children now and fuss too much. Perhaps the key that young people today need most in later adolescence is one that could lock out their parents. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds