When Parents Are Driving Instructors

Sure, teaching our own kids the rules of the road can be risky — but also revealing and rewarding

A friend in Massachusetts told me he’s teaching his 16-year-old daughter to drive. It is a gutsy thing he’s doing, because “I could just as easily could have turned her over to a driving school,” he said. “Why risk the relationship? Why risk life or limb?”

Yet he’s insisting on teaching her himself, he said, “because she’s a good kid and a conscientious learner. And by the way, it’s going fine.”

Did I have mixed feelings about my son being out on the road? Of course.

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By “going fine,” he’s not just referring to the driving lessons. That is just one piece of it.

He’s alluding to the good one-on-one father-daughter time happening between them. During the driving lessons, they are each facing in the same direction, looking out in front of them — gazing ahead at the world. Good conversation between parent and teenager can happen when both people are looking in the same direction (and neither of them is chatting on a cellphone, texting with someone else, listening to one’s own music, or otherwise tuning out the companion).

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In this scenario, parent and teen can actually have a conversation. Teens don’t feel “confronted,” as they tend to do in some face-to-face interactions at home. Behind the wheel — freewheeling conversations can occur.

I did this with my youngest son. We drove all over the neighborhood together. Beyond the stop signs and the red lights and the parallel parking and the proper use of signal lights, we negotiated some other issues. How were things going between him and his girlfriend? (He didn’t want to say. But at least he knew I was interested if he ever did want to talk about it — as if.)

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Teen Driving Data” source=]56% of teens admit to talking on their cellphones while driving|34% send and reply to texts while driving (ages 16 and 17)|12% of distracted drivers in fatal wrecks were ages 15 to 19[/lz_bulleted_list]

That tough, upper-level calculus class he’d decided to take — how was that going? (It was fine. He actually liked it. He told me about the finer points of the class and how good the teacher was.)

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That weekend trip he was planning with friends — where did that stand and who all was going? (That was a work in progress. “Still working on it, Mom.”)

Though it was one more thing to schedule in our busy days and weeks, this mom actually enjoyed the driving lessons. It gave me one-on-one time with my son. Each time we went out on the road together, he got better and better, gained more confidence, and saw that he was making progress and felt good about it. Each time we went out driving, he and I had one more little nugget (or two, or three) of conversation.

We made progress each time. We grew together.

This helped him, he admitted later — only after he passed his driver’s test and the pressure was off. In so many words, he indicated he enjoyed our time together in the car. But it also helped me.

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I loved seeing my son develop his skills and confidence behind the wheel. So satisfying! Did I wish time slowed down (and his speed on the highway slowed down)? Of course. Did I have mixed feelings about him being out on the road? Of course. But I saw this as a step in time and a step in life — and I wanted him (needed him) to be as good a driver as he could be. When he passed the test, I was both happy for him, worried as his mom, and philosophical as an adult that this was meant to be.

As for my friend — he’s been learning his own lessons.

“I’m realizing that when I’m out driving with my daughter, I really want to be dialing — as in, the phone.”

Sorry, Dad. You can’t do that when you’re the teacher. And you shouldn’t do it when you’re driving, either. (He knows.)

He also wants to grab a snack behind the wheel, since this is his longtime habit. (Sorry, Dad.)

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He said it’s his habit, too, to fiddle with the radio in the car as he tries to find a favorite program to listen to — something he also shouldn’t do while negotiating winding roads, speeding traffic, and teaching his daughter the right way to drive.

Also, “I’m teaching my daughter to drive with her hands on the ‘ten and two’ position on the wheel — even though that’s not something I’ve done for myself since the Carter administration.”

So this man’s driving lessons with his daughter have become a massive case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” We must each negotiate this parenting “trip” in our way, in our own time, and figure it all out — for our kids’ sake and for ours.

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