Nothing could have truly prepared me for the moment I found myself gripping the edges of the passenger's seat while my 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, accelerated up a highway ramp for the first time. But it was inevitable—once she got her learner's permit, Massachusetts state law required my daughter to log 40 hours of driving under parental supervision before testing for her license. That's great in theory. But in practice? Not easy for me as a mom.
Even parked in our garage, I felt helpless just sitting there while my daughter adjusted the driver's seat, carefully angled the rearview mirrors, shifted into reverse and inched her way into the driveway. (It's not as though I had my own brake pedal, like a pro driving instructor would.) When we began rolling through my garden, I suddenly realized that while she'd driven around an empty parking lot a few times with her father, this was her first time driving backward.
"Which way do I turn the wheel?" Hannah asked.
It was tough to process her question, given that backing out is something I do so automatically. "Left. No, right!" I yelled, startling Hannah. She gunned it straight back into the hosta plants, braking just short of crashing directly into our hemlock tree.
Obviously, I had as much to learn about copiloting as my teenager had to learn about driving. To avoid future gridlock, I consulted experts for advice.
POWER STEERING TIPS
- Stay calm. "First of all, relax. When you're nervous, they're nervous," said Mary Ellen Paciorek, founder and owner of Pioneer Valley Driving School in Amherst, where my daughter took lessons. I thought back to Hannah's speedy approach to an intersection where a mother and toddler were crossing. I yelled, "Stop! Now!" In retrospect, not a shining supervisory moment.
- Start small. "It helps everyone adjust if you begin in an empty parking lot, then move to low-traffic areas. Slowly build up to more congested roads. You'll both be more confident by the time you hit the highway," said Katherine Appy, a clinical psychologist who has counseled many teens and parents through the driving transition and has weathered a combined 80 hours of supervised driving practice with her own two sons.
- Share your instincts. "They're going to say they don't need you, but they do need your experience," said Paciorek. This is true across the board when it comes to parenting teens, but while they're learning to drive, it's crucial. "As you approach an intersection, the moment you'd normally start braking, tell them, 'Let's start braking now,' " Paciorek said. Help them learn to anticipate, not just react by slamming on the brakes.
- Remain positive. Teens will be teens, and they may resist your suggestions. "Give instructions only when there's a big mistake," said Appy. "They may roll their eyes and say, 'I already know that,' so take a deep breath and keep your tone light and firm while responding, 'Okay, I hear you, but it's just a reminder.' "
- Correct them immediately. "When they do something wrong, don't wait to say so," said Paciorek. Just say it pleasantly and stay positive as you explain, for instance, "You have to turn the wheel just a little bit more, so you don't veer into oncoming traffic." Admittedly, this level of serenity could take me much more than 40 hours to master, but I know that obvious negativity can make my daughter defensive, angry and less likely to listen.
- Make time to drive with your teen. "Experience is the only thing that's going to develop their judgment, and 12 hours of driving with an instructor won't cut it," said Paciorek. "The biggest complaint I get from kids is: My parents won't drive with me. They're too busy, Mom's too afraid, we only have a car with manual transmission, it's bad weather . . . If it were my kid, I'd rather put in those 40 hours with them before they're on their own." She urges parents to consistently carve out as much time as possible to drive with their teens, regardless of state mandates.
- When all else fails, shift to neutral. Her first time backing out of a parking space, Hannah nervously asked me to remind her which pedal was the gas and which was the brake. Admittedly, this left me a little rattled. But according to Paciorek, "they all make the same mistakes, and many have to do with acceleration and deceleration. A beginning driver will oversteer when taking a right-hand corner, end up on someone's lawn, panic and mistake the gas for the brake. What parents need to do in an emergency situation is learn how to quickly and very carefully reach over and shift the car into neutral."
- Reinforce responsible driving behaviors. Appy found it extremely helpful to attend the parent class offered by her son's driving school, where she was reminded to maintain "active alertness" behind the wheel. "I've stopped talking on my cell phone while driving, and now I'm more conscious about keeping two hands on the wheel, instead of two fingers. Driving is tough enough without doing anything else," Appy said.
Thanks to all this expert advice, Hannah and I are doing pretty well traveling our rocky road. Most of the plants lining the driveway have been spared, and on her first highway spin, Hannah successfully merged between a green minivan full of other people's children and an orange Honda Fit. However, 20 minutes later, half our car rattled in the breakdown lane for a few long seconds, vibrating along the warning strip.
"Oops," Hannah said, as she figured out how to adjust the wheel to get back on smooth surface.
I laughed nervously but stayed relatively mellow. Up ahead, a series of construction cones signaled a split in the road. I bit my tongue and let Hannah choose whether to go left or right. My daughter is a driver now. And very soon, I won't be riding shotgun, at least not as much. It will be a road test for both of us, but I'm sure we'll both pass.
4 RULES OF THE ROAD
Teenage drivers don't think they'll be involved in an accident or get pulled over, says Barbara Quackenbos, a former New Jersey litigator specializing in insurance coverage issues. But both things can happen, and it's important to prepare your kid.
- Teach appropriate procedure in case of an accident. Somebody backed into Quackenbos' 17-year-old daughter while she was parked and waiting for a train, and she had no idea how to handle the situation. "I should have taught her to get the person's full name and contact and insurance information after any auto incident. They don't teach that in driver's ed."
- Add extra emergency contacts. Make sure phone numbers of other adults your teen knows well and trusts are programmed into her phone, in case parents are unavailable.
- Update insurance. Double-check that your policy is always paid and up-to-date. Drivers must have proof of insurance with them or in the glove compartment.
- Explain necessary protocol for interacting with police officers. Quackenbos' daughter, pulled over only because she looked so young, made the mistake of starting to get out of the car. Key takeaway: Don't assume it's as obvious to your teen as it is to you that it's critical to remain inside the vehicle with both hands visible at all times if stopped by law enforcement. It's your job as a parent to explain that the officer will first ask for her license and registration. Talk it through from beginning to end.