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Teaching Your Teen to Drive

Notes From The Passenger Seat

By Mir Kamin

I grew up in New York (upstate, not the big city), and twenty-mumble years ago when I turned 16 there, the law was like this: You could take your driver’s permit test at 16, after which you could pretty much take your license test whenever you felt ready. Once licensed, the only caveat of a “Junior License” (for those under the age of 17) was that you not drive after 9:00 at night unless it was related to a school activity. (I found this a fascinating rule. For one thing, my friends and I always joked about how the worst part of being 16 was that assumption that you’d lose control of the wheel the moment the clock struck 9, sort of like how Cinderella’s coach turned back into a pumpkin at midnight. For another, you could legally drive home from prom but not to the store to grab a jug of milk if it was dark out.) I don’t remember how long it took me to get my license (I got my permit as soon as I turned 16, over the summer, and I want to say I got my license the following January), but my parents promptly allowed me to drive myself to nightly play rehearsals a town away, as years of chauffeuring me back and forth was quite enough, thank you. I was instructed not to speed and to tell any officer who might pull me over that the play was a school activity (it wasn’t).

I had a boyfriend who had his own car; I rode around with him all the time, starting when I was much younger than 16, and it wasn’t unusual for us to cram another three (or four or five) people into his car as well. That’s just what you did.

Well, eventually the safety experts figured out that teenagers aren’t 1) all that safe or 2) all that bright. Most states have adopted stricter rules about licensing itself as well as graduated licenses. Here in Georgia, imagine my horror to discover that you can get a permit at 15. Sure, your 15-year-old was a paragon of rational thought and responsibility, of course (and congratulations), but when my oldest turned 15, I’m not sure I trusted her to operate a can opener, much less a motor vehicle. We were not one of those families who ran out and got her permit on her birthday, that’s for sure. It turns out, we were hardly unique—teen driving rates have been declining, and plenty of my kids’ eligible friends also aren’t driving yet. I think it’s due in large part to the new rules about licensing; first, you have to have your permit here for a year before you’re even eligible to test for your license. A year is an eternity to most teens. Next, once you have that license, for the first six months you can’t have anyone in the car who’s not part of your immediate family, and for the next six months, you’re still not allowed to take more than one underage passenger. What’s the point of having a license if you can’t load up your friends? Might as well have Mom or Dad drive you, especially when that crummy license requires said parents to certify you’ve had at least 40 hours of experience behind the wheel.

Anyway, we waited, for all sorts of reasons. My oldest was nearly 16 when we finally allowed her to get her driving permit, and once obtained, it was brought home and put away. We had no intention of teaching her to drive at that time, we were just mindful of the fact that she needed to have her permit for a year before licensure. Without getting into the specifics of why we felt she wasn’t ready, I can tell you that this last month, we decided It Was Time. I don’t mind telling you that many of the issues which had previously concerned us seem to have resolved in the last three months or so, for one thing. Also—and perhaps more pressing, depending on your point of view—said teen’s younger brother is about to turn 15, making him eligible for a driving permit as well. (Not driving: Not embarrassing. Not driving when your little brother is driving: Kind of embarrassing.)

It is perhaps interesting to note here that my son has no interest in obtaining his permit. He thinks driving is scary, and “where would I go, anyway? You can drive me.” Due to their individual personality quirks, I’m less worried about him learning than her. This isn’t a slam on my daughter, please understand; she has ADD and difficulty multitasking. And while I assured my husband that he could teach her to drive because I wasn’t having any part of it, I realized I was being silly and needed to participate in this process, too. (We are also planning on driving school.) The first time I sat in a big empty parking lot with my daughter behind the wheel, I realized just how many things a good driver must attend to at once—things I do by instinct, now, after years of driving, but which must’ve sounded like an insurmountable list to my nervous teen.

Did I Google “best ways to teach a teen to drive” before we went out? Yeah, I did. I read articles. I skimmed tip sheets. They all came back to the same things: Be calm. Be encouraging. Praise rather than criticize, as much as possible. Temper correction with assurances that they’re getting it, it’s fine. (Rules for driving or just plain good advice for parenting, period? I say both.) We drove in long, looping ovals, discussing getting the feel of the road, the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brake pedal. I made her speed up, slow down, stop at countless imaginary stop signs.

“Watch the curb. You’re fine, just know where it is.”

“What do you do if an animal runs out in front of you?”

“You can be doing everything right and someone else either doesn’t see you or drives poorly—that’s why they call it defensive driving, because you have to watch for the stuff you can’t control.”

“There you go… you’re getting the feel of the pedals now. See how much smoother that is?”

I let her drive home (we weren’t far, and we don’t live in a busy area), continuing my running monologue, hoping she found it calming rather than annoying. “That’s it, okay, the speed limit here is 50, but if that feels scary, go 40. Too slow is just as dangerous as too fast, when it comes to other drivers, but you can go between 40 and 50 and that’s fine. Notice how smaller steerings have a bigger effect at a higher speed, see? It’s fine, sweetie, you’re doing great. Watch that car up there, he’s far away but if you see brake lights, remember, it’ll take longer to stop from a higher speed. Glance down and check your speed; there you go. Yep, it’s super easy to forget how fast you’re going when you’re paying attention to everything else. That’s something that you’ll get the feel of over time. Perfect, I like how you’re signaling and slowing down. Great stop. Yep, let that car go, they were here first. You don’t need to wait for the other one, you’re next, but do check that he’s going to let you go… okay, perfect, make your turn. Nice! Yup, signal again, this one’s a right turn so just slow down enough to make the turn… wooooo, okay, maybe next time slow down juuuust a little more—it’s fine, honey, you’re fine—and on home. Great! You can park right in front of the garage. Put it in park, put the brake on, turn off the lights, turn off the car. You did it!”

She exhaled, beamed a smile at me, and as I got out of the car she reached into the glove box and extracted her phone. She snapped a selfie behind the wheel and posted it to her friends with the caption “I DIDN’T CRASH THE CAR YAY!”

Sometimes it feels like we’re inching towards adulthood with our teens, and sometimes it feels like we’re careening there at top speed with no brakes. This feels like… a little of both.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • 2015! 2015! 2015! | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    December 31, 2014 at 10:45 am

    […] we are in the midst of teaching Chickadee to drive, which is definitely an adventure unto itself. I wrote about it on Alpha Mom, if you’re […]

  • Lisa

    December 31, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I have an 18 yr old son who, in CA, was eligible for a permit at 15 1/2 but waited until he was 16 1/2. He took driving lessons online, then behind the wheel and then there requirements for a certain number of hours for nighttime and daytime driving and freeway driving with a licensed adult. Once he got his license, he was not allowed to drive after 10 and no one under 18 could be with him unless an adult licensed driver was too UNTIL he was 18 or had the license for a year. He’s an awesome driver but was stressful as a mom.

  • Brenda

    December 31, 2014 at 11:26 am

    In WI I could get my permit at 15 1/2 and take my license test at 16. I think you had to have your permit for 6 months. I remember how overwhelming it was to drive this huge vehicle. My dad and I drove loops in a parking lot, me not even touching the accelerator because 15 MPH was SO FAST when I was new. The first time I drove at night on an unfamiliar road, I think I lasted about 3 minutes before I pulled over and made my mom drive. I got my license in April, so about 4 months after my birthday. I wasn’t in a huge rush because it was winter and I didn’t go many places, but I know my mom appreciated me being able to drive to work and play practice on my own and chauffeur my sister around the next year when we were both in high school. Good luck, Chickie! You’ll get the hang of it in no time! 

  • Lynne

    December 31, 2014 at 11:34 am

    I understand completely.  It has been 25 years since I was doing exactly what you are doing now.  I will NEVER forget the thought that went through my mind the first time I sat in the passenger seat with my child in the driver’s seat…”I have just handed the control of my life, my child’s life and this as yet unpaid for car to a kid who cannot manage picking up socks and walking across the house at the same time”  Needless to say, hubby did the teaching.

  • The Other Leanne

    December 31, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Back when a ’72 Chevelle was just appearing in showrooms, we had Driver’s Ed for six weeks (rules of the road/defensive driving), then six weeks of Driver Training (actual! driving), all through the school system. I got my learner’s permit in order to get behind the wheel. My mother took me out to practice a few times, my sister tried once, and my BIL also gave it a shot. I got my permit renewed 3 times over two states. Finally got my license when I was 21 years old. That’s my short story.
    But here are the three most important rules I’ve learned for safe driving:
    Always look in the direction the car is moving; never drive faster than the car in front of you; and adhere strictly to the 3-second rule. If we had all been following those rules, I would not have been in three preventable crashes and I would still have a fully-functioning neck. 

  • Moira

    December 31, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    How’s this? Driving age in South Dakota is 14. My kids (I have twins) got permits within 6 weeks of turning 14 and only needed to hold that permit for 90 days (and pass driver’s education and a driving test) before they got their “restricted” license. The only “restriction”? Solo driving only between 6am and 10pm. No limits on other kids in the car, nothing. All those farm kids who have been driving tractors for years are the reason behind the rules, but when the city kids are driving around at 14, it’s very unnerving. Why did we let them get their licenses? Both are relatively mature and very responsible (so far). However, we did NOT buy them a car.  Still gotta ask mom and dad if they can actually go somewhere.

    • Nelson's Mama

      December 31, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      I was a Kentucky farm girl and I’d been driving for years when I got my license at 16.  The lack of skills that my small town “city girls” had when they got their license was unnerving for me as well.

    • Rachel

      December 31, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      I grew up in a northern MN farming community & I remember the drivers ed instructor asking which kids in the class were farmer’s kids that had been driving on the farm. He said they were the ones he was worried about teaching because they had already been driving with bad habits that he would need to correct. The “city” kids were better drivers in his opinion. Granted, this was in a small town with one stop light, not actually a city. I took drivers ed 28 years ago, now I have 2 teens that drive. When my oldest was 14, the laws in ND were that they could get the permit at age 14 & then 6 months later they could take the test for their license if they had taken drivers ed. No restrictions at all once they passed behind the wheel test. We made her have her permit 18 months before taking her test for her license. (It’s winter here for over 1/2 the year, it would be crazy to have her license without experience of driving in winter!) Now, my youngest is 14 & laws have changed, must have permit 1 year, take drivers ed & pass behind the wheel test. Restrictions when driving up to age 18 (but I’m not sure on restrictions yet because he still has time until he gets his license). He will have his permit 18 months before he takes his test because we are mean, horrible parents and life isn’t fair.

  • Alicia

    December 31, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I have a feeling Chickadee will be just fine. I learned to drive on a standard in the early 2000s, and I remember my Dad’s running monologue of “ok, let off the clutch some more, push on the gas a little more” being extremely calming and soothing. My mom’s “OMG WHY IS THE CAR BUCKING YOU LET OFF THE CLUTCH WAY TOO FAST” was however not. 😉

    Here’s hoping it’s a smooth transition for you all. hugs!

    • Charlene

      December 31, 2014 at 1:10 pm

      My dad taught my sisters and me to drive on a manual transmission. He would drive us out into the country, find a steep hill and park the car halfway up. Then we would switch drivers, and we had to get the car the rest of the way up the hill. It was a very effective technique! And I will always be grateful for learning how to drive a stick. I still prefer it over automatic transmission, and no one ever wants to borrow your car! 

  • Charlene

    December 31, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    In Iowa you can get your permit at 14, an intermediate license at 16, and a full license at 17, with different rules at each step. When I started driving, you got your permit at 14 and your license at 16, and the only other rule I can remember is that you had to drive with a licensed adult while you had your permit. 

  • Katie K.

    December 31, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    I am right there with you.  The first time my daughter drove, in a parking lot, thank goodness,  she started accelerating and I pointed out she hadn’t buckled her seat belt.  She let go of the wheel and reached to grab the seat belt, foot still on gas pedal, because SHE FORGOT SHE WAS DRIVING!  Multitasking is not her strong suit and teaching her has been a challenge, but she is improving.  

  • Wendy E

    December 31, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    I had my license by 16, my daughter got her permit at 15, license close to age 16. She has had three car accidents in 3 years. First one was due to ice and she messed up the front end of her first car. The second was not her fault, She was hit by a cement truck making an illegal turn that totalled out the above car. The worst was when she flipped her car going up the hill near our house on a day where the roads were slick. Scared the hell out of all of us.

  • Brigitte

    December 31, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    Driving you to distraction?  Driving you to drink?  Driving you insane?  
    I’m still a few years off, but I dread the day.

  • Bobbie

    January 1, 2015 at 8:58 am

    I remember my father screaming “too close to the side of the road!!!”  I thought he was being a bit over the top until I was in the passenger seat teaching my oldest son to drive and suddenly those mailboxes seemed awfully close to my side of the car…

  • Grammy

    January 2, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Thirty five years ago I was the parent in the passenger seat. I see things haven’t changed a bit.

    I came home after the first couple of lessons teaching our son (in a manual transmission car) and told my husband, “The next one is YOURS to teach — I am never getting in a car with a teenager again.” But of course, I had to.

    Six years later, he taught our daughter (in a newer car with automatic transmission) but then an elderly aunt gave her a car with a stick shift and somehow I was the one who taught her to drive that. It was no more fun than the first time.

    If it does you any good, both of our “kids” are careful adults and good drivers. The entire family survived. It was no piece of cake for any of us, though, getting them there.

  • another sue

    January 3, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    It is possible (!) that I am a “nervous” eater. I could always tell that it was practice driving time when I found my daughter in the kitchen packing me a lunch. We survived, but I would not call it a good time.

    • Mir Kamin

      January 4, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Haaaaaaaa about her packing you a lunch! That’s hilarious!!

  • Chris

    January 4, 2015 at 9:41 am

    My daughter has a driving lesson this morning (with a professional – we are teaching her as well but it is my experience that she learns better from someone else besides mom and dad AND they will prep her for the road test).

    In NY, you have to be 16 to get a permit and then can only get a full license at 17  if you take school sponsored drivers ed.  Which is $900 and at 7 am three mornings a week at our school which is 30 minutes away.  Given that DD is young for her grade, she is a junior learning to drive and that just seem cruel.  So she will have a junior license until 18 but mostly means she cant drive at night (unless back from school which is the relevant location) or drive other people’s kids home (which isn’t her responsibility) so we decided we were ok with that

    It is very different being in the passenger side.  DD is very sensitive to criticism so even small adjustments are met with “I am a horrible and will never be able to drive” which is opposite from the truth.  Now my youngest – she will be my distracted driver for sure