SmackDown: Should Parents Teach Teens How to Drive?

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girl driving

Are parents really the best driving instructors? Illustration by Dori Hartley


Parents and Teens Will Drive Each Other Crazy


by Jessica Samakow

If your kids wanted to go skydiving, would you teach them how to jump yourself, or would you leave it up to a certified instructor?

Assuming you've agreed to let them jump in the first place, you would probably leave the instruction up to someone certified and qualified. So, when it comes to driving, why is the precedent any different?

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For any other life-threatening activity, parents would probably opt out of being their teen's teacher. But, when it comes to the daily activity that, statistically, presents the most danger, parents tend to be the core instructor.

Bad idea.

Just because a person knows how to drive, doesn't mean she knows how to teach how to drive. And when emotions and fear play into the mix, the results can be disastrous or even fatal.

Instead, certified driving instructors should be responsible for teaching teens how to drive. I still refer to the year I learned how to drive as "the worst year of my life," thanks to my parents who made the experience nothing short of traumatic for me.

Five years ago, I felt like the coolest kid in town the first time I sat behind the wheel, buckled my seat belt and prepared to show the road who was boss. What I neglected to consider (but would soon be reminded of), was that my anxiety-ridden mother was sitting in the passenger seat and her terror would have an effect on me.

We began in a completely empty parking lot, but from her dramatic reactions, one would assume we were on a NASCAR track and that I was a serial killer determined to end her life. I lowered my foot onto the gas pedal, she gasped for air and grabbed onto the ceiling as if it would save her in a time of emergency. My mom failed to recognize that although she was scared, I was the one who had never operated a vehicle before. How was I supposed to remain calm if my "teacher" was in panic mode?

After weeks of practicing in a parking lot and figuring out a way to filter her freak-outs, my mom finally decided I was ready for the tough stuff: neighborhood streets. I knew I had gotten the hang of this whole driving thing, and I felt like it was time to accelerate past 15 mph.

As I gently pressed on the gas and the speedometer crept up toward a whopping 20, my nearly mom ruptured my eardrum.

"JESSSSICAAAAAAAAAAAA," she shrieked.

I slammed on the breaks assuming I had run over a squirrel, or a small child or something. I hadn't. My mom pointed a shaking finger to the kid riding his bike on the sidewalk.

"Well, yeah, Mom, he's on the sidewalk," I said. "I'm on the road. Chill."

But of course, she wouldn't.

I suddenly realized that when I was finally released onto an actual road with real, live cars on it, we were going to have some issues. Again, I was right. My mom's perpetual gasps and motions to slam on her imaginary brakes did not make for a fun "learning" environment.

"YOU'RE TOO CLOSE TO THE CURB," she would scream as she grabbed the wheel to violently steer it the other way.

Clearly an effective teaching method.

Eventually, she came to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work, and she let my step-dad take over as teacher. The polar opposite of my mother, my step-dad is the guy who once got sucked into the deep part of the Bahamian ocean because he decided the "Do not swim past this point" signs did not apply to him.

A little too carefree, some would say.

He decided to use driving time as nap time. I'd be focused on the road waiting for instruction and hear a snore beside me.

I'd shout for him to wake up, he'd shrug his shoulders and say, "OK, just merge onto the highway."

Oh yeah? Just like that?

"Relax," he'd say, "You're too much like your mother."

His guess-and-check method of driving did not feel quite right to me.

Eventually, when I took lessons with a professional instructor, who calmly advised me to "brake sooner" or "make a left turn," I thought to myself, "Wow, where was this guy when I first took to the streets?"

The big day finally came and I was determined to get my license on the first try. Thankfully, I did.

But this automotive scar is so deep that my driver's license has now taken backseat in my wallet to my Metrocard. I moved to New York City and now take the subway every day.


Parents Drive Home Invaluable Lessons


by Mary Kate Baumann

I was driving home from New York City with two of my friends along for the ride one morning last winter. It was a drizzling and bitterly cold day, as I drove along a winding, two-lane highway toward suburban New York.

Things were going fine one minute, but suddenly I was spinning out of control. I'd hit black ice and was careening toward not only the guard rail, but also a highway cop who was setting up flairs at an accident that had just occurred.

It happened so fast, but all I could hear was my dad's voice in the back of my head and flashbacks to deserted, snowy parking lots where he taught me what to do in this exact situation.

"Turn into it, don't slam on the breaks."

It's times like that, where all the frustrations I have had with my parents constantly repeating themselves and reminding me how to drive, all go away.

I will always remember the day I got my driver's permit. It was 7 a.m. (Early? Yes, but I didn't want to sit for hours waiting to take my test. Let's be honest: The DMV is not known for its prompt service). And it was freezing (late March tends to be more winter than spring in New York). I even recall doing some last-minute cramming in the car, just to make sure I would pass the written portion of the test.

Of course, despite my early arrival, I still had to wait. And wait. Finally, I took the test, and, as the clerk (who clearly didn't want to be there) began scoring it, I noticed one wrong answer. Then another. And another. My heart sank and tears started welling in my eyes as she marked my answers incorrect with huge X's -- as if the red marker wasn't already mean enough.

"Oh wait," she said. "My mistake. I'm using the wrong answer key!"

Hilarious. After that traumatizing encounter, I came home with a permit. The piece of paper was my pass to the highway of freedom!

Or so I thought.

Expecting my parents to acknowledge my new grown-up status, I asked to take the car out.

My mother deferred me to my father who wouldn't be home until at least 5 p.m. I begrudgingly accepted my mother as a wimp who refused to let me drive her around and expected my dad to be enthused by my driving.

But no, I was let down yet again when my dad said I'd have to wait until the weekend when it was light out and he had more time.

Finally, Saturday arrived, and my driving endeavors began. First, in parking lots, then in private drives and, eventually, in deserted streets where I'd often be sternly reminded of the "right ways to drive."

My dad had (and still has) this way of freaking out when I go too fast or don't start breaking soon enough for a stop light. He starts grabbing the sides of the car and dashboard, as if bracing himself for impact, which usually ensues in a sigh of disappointment and a stern talking to -- something I've learned to look at in jest.

This was how I learned how to drive -- breaking out in nervous sweats, mostly in fear of being yelled at. However, with my parents by my side, rather than an instructor I'd never met before, I was more relaxed. I was responsible for my family, and not a foreign car and random strangers also learning to drive. I knew my trusty car, and my parents could tell me when I was being stupid. Tough love isn't always that bad.

Once I had to take an official driver's education class, I already knew how to drive because my parents taught me. The driving instructor in the passenger seat next to me was really just giving me directions to the place we were going -- an endless trip with no specific destination.

My parents were the whip-snappers when I was behind the wheel. There were so many rules.

With apologies, when it came to their "rules of the road," some of the biggest let-downs at the time were as follows:

  • I was NOT allowed to get my license until I took driver's ed.
  • I was NOT allowed to get in a car with one of my friends driving.
  • I was NOT allowed to drive at night without my parents in the car.
  • I was NOT allowed to drive to my friend's house where a party was; I always had to be dropped off by a parent, and ALWAYS picked up by one.
These rules made life -- and learning to drive -- so much more difficult for me than it was for all of my friends. My parents were tough on me and, although at times I hated it, I am much more appreciative now. Especially in situations like the one I encountered last winter.

No matter how much I hated it at the time, I'm thankful for my parents' strict driving rules. Only your parents can teach you invaluable lessons from their personal experiences. And, their brutal honesty? That's their job. Your safety is what matters most.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.