It's happened, and there's truly not a thing you can do about it. Your baby has reached the age where he's legally allowed to drive on back roads, highways and interstates. At first he's required to have you in the car any time he's behind the wheel. But soon enough he'll be officially licensed and free to come and go as he pleases - by law, that is.
While this is one of the most bitter sweet times in a parent's life, driving is a huge responsibility and learning opportunity for both parent and teen alike. How you handle teaching your young adult the rules of the road, however, can be just as important as how he handles the car itself. Here are a few tips that will help maneuver your teen's transition from passenger to operator safely and with as much encouragement as possible.
1. Set the stage
The journey to your teen becoming transportationally independent doesn't need to begin the day he or she turns "of age." You can start "schooling" your soon-to-be driver on the ways of the road during your trips to and from sporting events or any other time you're in the car together. Teach by example. Keep your phone out of site and out of reach so you're not tempted to check your e-mail or answer a text while you're driving. Kids learn far more by watching than being lectured so pre-license is the perfect time to flip-flop the "do as I say not as I do" adage we all know, love and use.
As with everything in life, effective communication is paramount to the safety of your teen and the world around her. It filters into everything from who rides with her, where she's allowed to go, what time she has to be home and the fact that while she's trustworthy other drivers are not. The key to making this type of communication effective is coming up with boundaries that both you and your kid understand and agree on. If you end up barking orders at her without giving her a chance to comprehend the logic behind them, you're basically opening the door to rebellion both at home and on the road.
Keep in mind that effective communication about this subject doesn't have to start when your daughter is taking driver's education. As with the teaching by example phase, begin building a mutually respectful relationship with her years in advance of her turning 16. By doing this, the two of you will have developed a rapport that is open to questions, misunderstandings, clarifications and forgiveness that flow rather than hinder all progress.
3. Step off the pedals
It's true that while you are indeed partially responsible for teaching safe stopping distances, speeds and lane changes, your reaction time and experiences differ than those of your new driver. If you tend to start braking three football fields away from the car in front of you, that's your driving pattern and may not be the way your son feels the brakes work under his foot. As long as he's paying attention and stopping within a reasonable distance from the car in front on him, let him. However, you can explain your perspective and why you may have had a momentary lapse of reason and panicked a little. This type of feedback helps keep your driver relaxed, less on edge and encourages trust and safe driving. If there are times when the stopping distance is a little too close for comfort, remind him of your agreement to non-judgmentally discuss things and help him process the situation.
4. It's not personal
Make sure your daughter understands that from your recent driving experiences with her, you trust her and her judgment. But other drivers - not so much. Explain to her why being on top of her game is imperative. Realize that no one can ever truly know what's going on with the person behind, beside or in front. The guy swerving to her left might be fighting with his wife and change lanes without looking. Or the woman leaving the bar after getting fired might be the person driving in front of her. Encourage your daughter to be aware of her surroundings; reminding her of her responsibility to herself, to you and to others on the road.
5. Keep YOUR eye on the "road."
The more comfortable your kids get behind the wheel of the car, the more comfortable you could become with bending the rules. It's your job as his parent to keep your eyes and ears on the big picture and reel him back in if things start to get a little too relaxed. Your child may "know" better than to stretch the limits, but keep in mind this freedom is all new to him. He still needs your help staying between the lines. While he's watching for road signs, it's your responsibility to be looking for warning signs that your protection and guidance is needed. Because you've built a relationship on open, honest and effective communication, speaking your truth with love and respect while helping him refocus will be as easy as putting the car in park.