Do you know any parents who love teaching their kids to drive? Me neither. Now that my husband and I are at our official halfway point—midway through our third teen’s permit—I’ve finally reached a point of peace with it.
With the first new driver, I thought I’d be the cool, laid-back stepmom who wouldn’t stress out or raise her voice. This was before I fully grasped that the things that exasperate you about your kids around the house will exponentially exasperate you when they’re behind the wheel, because now those annoyances are dangerous and expensive.
You put your reasonably intelligent teens in the driver’s seat and it’s as if aliens have abducted them and left poorly functioning drones in their place. The girl who speaks fluent French gets the brake and gas pedals mixed up. The boy who does complex logarithmic equations in his head fails to notice when the car in front of him brakes. The volleyball star who anticipates the moves of every member of the opposing team can’t anticipate a single move by another driver.
Yet even when they lull you into a false sense of security by pretending to ignore you, it turns out your kids are always watching you.
At a four-way stop, our second teen driver stopped smoothly and took her turn in order.
“How was that?” she asked.
“Perfect!” I said.
“You have the best stops out of everyone,” she explained. “You let up on the brake a little before you come to a complete stop, and then it doesn’t jerk at the end.”
That’s a habit I developed in my 20s, back when I smoked and drank coffee from an open mug while driving (stopping like that keeps the coffee from spilling). I didn’t mention this.
When the third kid got her permit, I looked back on previous experiences and accepted a few things that have made it easier:
1. The car’s going to get dinked up.
The first teen jumped the curb in our driveway, ripping off the entire undercarriage covering while her father and I watched. She then proceeded to tell us how it wasn’t her fault. The second one ignored, for three days, the fact that the car had been bombed by a pack of wild turkeys. When we demanded she wash the car, she used a steel wool pad. She’s hit the retaining wall so much that the bumper looks like it was attacked with an industrial cheese grater. We’re in no rush to get nicer cars.
2. I will accomplish nothing by holding my Jesus handle and pressing my imaginary brake pedal.
It is far more effective to calmly point out facts:
You should brake now.
Accelerate, or you’ll get run over.
You missed the exit.
3. I will accomplish nothing good by imagining worst-case scenarios.
Instead, I bring myself back to the present moment by calmly asking questions:
What’s the speed limit here?
Are you trying to crawl up that guy’s tailpipe?
4. I will raise my voice at some point.
It’s okay to yell when they do something truly dangerous. They’re new enough to the whole driving thing that they may not understand immediate danger. Parental anger usually gets their attention.
On a recent drive, the third teen did beautifully and didn’t make a single error. But as we approached our driveway, she didn’t slow down. Before I could speak, she turned, too fast and not enough. The noise was loud and jarring. I couldn’t tell whether she hit the retaining wall or the power line pole. I tried to be angry—I pulled out the old standby, “What were you thinking!?!” but it felt as if I were playing a part. She knows what she did and she’s unlikely to make that same error again. Fortunately, she only hit the retaining wall.
Inspecting the damage, I realized I couldn’t tell new scratches from old ones, and laughed. Accepting that these things happen—and being desensitized by two previous drivers—made it suddenly funny to me.
But I didn’t laugh half as much as I’m going to when the fifth one finally gets his license and I don’t have to teach any more teens how to drive.
JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand, and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.