Teen learning to drive? What’s a parent to do

July 27, 2011

“You’ve got your hands in the wrong position on the steering wheel, Mom.”

Welcome to the world of parenting a teenager learning to drive. I was driving my soon-to-be-16-year-old son Christopher to his second week of driver’s ed and I was the one being lectured.

I was feeling tense even though I was the one behind the wheel. What would happen when he completed his 30 hours of classroom instruction, had gotten his permit to drive and then began the process of logging 60 hours of driving time with an adult licensed driver (i.e. me)?

Sixty hours.

I’m not sure I’ve driven 60 hours with my parents in the past 30 years. But I’m supposed to sit next to a new driver while he logs the equivalent of 21 / 2 days of driving in a variety of conditions — nighttime, highways, rain — and maintain not just my sanity but also a semblance of a relationship with this teenage boy.

My anxiety about the whole driving thing hasn’t been abated — as parental anxieties so often are — by talking to folks who have already been through it. No parent of older children has offered up an encouraging “Oh, it’s nowhere near as bad as you think it will be” or “It’ll be over before you know it.” Instead, the reaction has been much like that of a colleague who heard me mention that I was getting ready to teach my son to drive. His children are now grown and yet his body language conveyed that time had not healed the wounds he suffered in this chapter of parenthood. He shook his head knowingly, laughed a rich baritone laugh clearly meant to convey better-you-than-me and said, “I wish you lots of luck with that, Tracy.”

Desperate for advice, I turned to AAA, in search of tips for helping Christopher and me navigate this milestone.

“It’s important to know what to stress and how not to be stressed,” Kristin Nevels, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic told me. Yes, Kristin, it is, but could you tell me how to do that? Please.

Let me say that AAA has a terrific Web site for kids and their parents (tailored to your state or D.C.) that is well worth spending time with. (For example, I was about to call my insurance agent to get Christopher added to my policy — ka-ching! — when I read on the Web site that until he has his full license, he’s covered under my policy.) There’s also a very sensible parent-teen driving agreement that allows families to tailor driving rules to their unique circumstances and spells out the consequences of driving infractions, from getting a ticket to driving with passengers unbuckled.

But here are what turned out to be the golden rules that Nevels shared with me.

Talk about driving with your child. As they get closer to doing it themselves, kids are infinitely more interested in all aspects of driving — from why signs are specific colors to why your mirrors are adjusted the way they are. So don’t curse at the driver who cuts you off without using a signal. See it as a chance to explain why a turn signal is essential.

Don’t correct your child’s mistakes while he’s driving. Wait a minute. Isn’t this where you throw your hands across your child’s chest, activate the pretend brake on the passenger side of the vehicle and screech: “What were you thinking?” Not exactly. “Calmly direct them to pull over . . . and see if they even realize what they did wrong,” Nevels advises. “Get them to say what they did wrong: ‘I ran that stoplight. I failed to signal. I reached for the radio.’ Then talk about it.”

Plan your practice times. “Don’t take your child out at 5 p.m. on a Friday,” Nevels says. “Don’t put a kid on the highway on the July Fourth weekend.” But summer is a good time to log some of those required driving hours. “Drive in the middle of the day if you can or because the days are longer, you can practice night driving,” she said.

Stay calm. Recognize that your child is not just excited about driving but also scared. “We see a lot of accidents involving teens caused by overcorrecting,” Nevels says. “They overcorrect because they’re used to someone screaming at them.”

As for my hands being on the wheel incorrectly, I protested. Perfectly positioned at 10 and 2, my hands were just where I had been taught to put them, I told my son.

“You learned to drive before airbags, Mom. Now they teach us to put our hands at 4 and 8 so that if the airbag goes off, your arms don’t get broken.”

I turned to Christopher slack-jawed in amazement. What he said made perfect sense.

This driving thing was going to be a learning process all right, for both of us.

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