Your children have turned to you for help in many things over the years. You helped them learn their ABCs, how to pet a dog and how to tie their shoes. Later, maybe you taught them how to make an omelet or what cycles to use when putting whites or colors in the washing machine. But it’s all child’s play compared to the most nerve-wrecking thing a parent will ever teach their children: how to drive.
Even if you let a driving school handle the heavy lifting (a smart idea and one that could reduce your insurance rates), you’re probably going to have to get into a car with your teenager at some point. But teaching your teen to drive doesn’t have to be a super stressful experience if you remember these three rules of the road.
Matthew McKee, who has a photography studio in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, learned this lesson the hard way, when he recently taught his oldest son, Hunter, to drive.
“The first time he got close to clipping a parked car, I yelled, he jumped and we stopped in the middle of the street, while we waited for our hearts to stop racing,” says McKee, adding: “Not the right response, according to the cars behind us.”
Edward Kraftmann agrees – patience, not yelling – should be your normal mode of operation. Kraftmann is co-owner of Driven2Drive, a driving school and testing center in Philadelphia.
If you lose your cool, you’re going to create a bad experience for your child, warns Kraftmann. He adds that if you’re constantly yelling and stressing out, your teen may even eventually be afraid to drive, not because they’re afraid of what’s on the roads, but who’s in the passenger seat. Don’t push your child too hard or too fast, he warns.
Yes, you want to teach, and your inclination is going to be to say something, as you lurch forward and back while your teenager gets used to the brake and gas pedals. But whatever you say should be as pleasant and supportive as possible. “Focus on building skills instead of criticizing their lack of skills,” advises Kraftmann.
Of course, that’s not so easy when you’re in a vehicle that weighs, say, a ton and can, if one presses on the gas pedal too hard, act like a 100-mile per hour plus missile. Still, McKee says he found it helpful to carefully explain to Hunter what he wanted him to do before they started the drive. He also recommends taking deep breaths.
Try not to panic, McKee urges. “You will only transfer that panic to them.”
Richard Horowitz, Ed.D., a father and a parenting and family coach based out of Palm Harbor, Florida, who taught four teenagers to drive, agrees. “The biggest challenge for a parent is to remain emotionally calm and conceptualize their role as teacher – not as parent,” he says. “The better your relationship with your teen, the better you will fare as a driving instructor.”
“Just like a dog can smell fear, a child is extremely receptive to their parents’ moods, tone and emotions,” cautions Kraftmann. “When it’s a stressful situation, all of that gets amplified.” Therefore, if you don’t think you can teach your teenager to drive without offering a lot of criticism, Kraftmann suggests that most of the teaching time outside of the driving school be handled by another parent or maybe an aunt or uncle, all of whom may have a different dynamic with your child.
But if you do think you can provide positive support when your child gets behind the wheel for the first time, but are at a loss for how to teach your teenager the basics of driving, remember that good communication is key, reminds Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., and author of several books including, “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go.”
Kuczmarski suggests talking – calmly – about what your teenager needs to be doing as they drive. “To [have them] turn left at a stop sign, say aloud: ‘Signal a left turn about one hundred feet before the intersection,’” she explains.
And your teen should be talking, too. “Ask your teen to talk out loud as you drive, narrating what a good driver should be seeing and doing to drive safely,” suggests Kuczmarski. “Listen as your teen describes your driving. Check for any omitted steps. Give feedback—especially positive, encouraging comments. When a teen can describe your good driving habits as you drive, you’ll know that [they are] ready to get behind the wheel.”
Not only do you want to model good driving techniques, but you also want to model safe driving behaviors. This is a formative period for your child—and a dangerous one. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than any other age group. A 2013 study by Cohen Children’s Medical Center suggests that texting while driving is a major contributor to that, even more so than drinking and driving.
Therefore, you should never use your phone while driving, not only to protect you, your passengers, other motorists and pedestrians, but also to demonstrate to your teen what responsible driving looks like.
Be Sure to Practice
Because teaching your teenager can be stressful, you might find yourself – consciously or subconsciously – finding other tasks to complete instead, like cleaning out the garage you were ignoring for years. But that would be a mistake, says Don Willmot, who owns the Open Road Driving Academy in Denville, New Jersey.
“I can’t tell you how often I encounter prospective drivers who haven’t put in the time after their driving school lessons to ensure that they are fully prepared for the road test,” he says. “Consistent practice is what will often be the determining factor of whether or not their child earns their driver’s license on the first attempt.”
Regardless of when they pass, Willmot adds that the more your teenager practices, the more likely they will become a safe and responsible driver.
And you don’t need to be out on the road for hours. In fact, it’s better if you aren’t, says Willmot.
“Shorter practice sessions, blocks of 15 to 20 minutes a day, seem to be more effective for teenagers than longer periods. Not only does this suit the attention span of the average high school student, but the aggravation, impatience and potential animosity that can be avoided by more abbreviated sessions behind the wheel can be better for the family’s overall well-being.”
And if you have more than one teenager, the next go-around might be better – or worse. Whatever it is, it’ll likely be completely different, cautions Sharon Koenig, a mother of three and a success coach in West Linn, Oregon. Koenig has taught two teenagers to drive so far, and she says that teaching her son “was a breeze. He always seemed to be a natural at driving. I soon became comfortable driving with him in the car. My daughter, on the other hand, was a different story.”
“Right-hand turns, parking at the store – it was all a challenge,” remembers Koenig. “My advice to a parent is to understand that each child has a different aptitude for driving and to not expect them to learn like another child or like the parent.”
Koenig adds that you might want to check whether you and your teen can practice some of the driving maneuvers at your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Not only did they do that, they watched other teenagers taking their road test, and that worked out well for both of her kids.
Parents too will likely learn something new about driving when they teach their teenagers how to drive. “Just because you passed your road test and have been driving for 20-plus years, don’t think that you are an expert,” says McKee. “Changes in road rules and updates in cars means that I was wrong on several rules for the road. And it turns out that I don’t brake properly in panic stop situations.”
It’s a lot to remember, but you made it through potty training and a slew of other challenges. You’ll get through this, too. And with any luck, when your teenager borrows the car for the first time, say, to pick up dinner for the family, you’ll be able to breathe easily and feel great about the part you played in preparing your child to engage with the driving world.
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