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My View from the Passenger Seat – Teaching My Teen to Drive

April 22nd, 2015     By Boys Town Contributor Father of four teenagers: ages 13,15,17 and 18

Family, Respect, Teens

Teachable moments can come from a wide variety of sources, including other parents. From time to time parents write blogs for us that we think you will find interesting, useful, or entertaining. Please enjoy this post from a fellow parent.

Ask any adult about their most vivid memories of being fifteen years old, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear about their first day of high school; their first love (and inevitable first heartbreak)… and the first time they sat in the driver’s seat of their parents’ car, gripped the steering wheel and stepped on the gas.

I still vividly remember that early Spring day in 1982 when my father drove me out to an empty parking lot, tossed me the keys, moved to the passenger seat (the only times I remember him ever being in the passenger seat of his own car) and said “OK, let’s see what you can do.” I was completely sure that I would be perfect right away. After all, I saw him drive almost every day and he made it look easy. How hard could this be? I pushed in the clutch on the 1971 Chevy Impala, started her up, confidently put it in first gear… and stalled it. And stalled it again. And again. My father looked at me with a sly smile and said “Ready to learn now?”

Eventually, with my father’s encouragement and patience, I got the hang of it and actually made it all the way across the parking lot. Over the next few weeks, I progressed to neighborhood roads, busier parts of town, and eventually highways. It was challenging and frustrating at times, but I had a great teacher and when I turned sixteen, I was ready to join the rest of the commuting world as a confident, safe driver.

Jump ahead 33 years…

Now I’m a parent teaching my third teen driver. As with the first two, before I get into the passenger seat of my own car for the first time and toss the keys to my new teen driver, I think back to my first time and how much I learned from my father. After a lot of trial and error, I think I finally have it figured out. Even though my kids have very different personalities, these approaches worked well for all of them.

  • Set appropriate expectations. Just because they’re good at Mario Kart doesn’t mean those skills will translate to the real world. Set the bar low to help build confidence. Start in an empty parking lot and stay there until they are ready and able to advance to the road. It might take an hour; it might take a month. Confidence can’t be rushed.
  • Let them make (safe) mistakes. Don’t try to correct everything they’re doing wrong when they’re first learning. Let them ask you for help or input instead of you immediately pointing out their mistakes. Keep a mental note of what things to focus on improving and go over it with them after if possible. If they’re not in danger of hurting themselves or the car, let them mess up a little.
  • Don’t let them see you sweat. I’m not going to lie. You will be scared. Terrified, in fact. You will double-check that your seat belt is fastened. You will reach for the safety handle. You will reflexively “step on the brakes” on the passenger side of the car. You will go to your car manufacturer’s website to make sure there are no recalls on your airbags. But try your very best to hide your crippling terror from your teen. If they see you nervous, they’ll be nervous. This is a difficult one, but it’s very important.
  • Stay positive and make it fun. Your teen is going to screw up a lot while learning to drive. You’re going to screw up a lot while teaching your teen to drive. But those very mistakes can become lasting positive memories if you make the experience fun. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you overreact to a mistake. Make them comfortable by joking around with them about the things they do wrong. It can be a wonderful bonding experience if you focus on the good things they do, and laugh off the bad.

Driving is a huge milestone in your teenager’s life. It means freedom, independence and it’s a big step toward adulthood. Teaching your teen to drive is also big for parents. It very well may be the last time your teenager admits that you know more than they do. Make it a positive experience for both of you. Enjoy it!


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