How (Not) to Teach a Teenage Girl to Drive

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irst, scope out a quiet neighborhood where your teenager can practice driving with minimal distractions. The road should be wide enough that she doesn’t feel squeezed by oncoming traffic. Take note of potential obstacles — pedestrians, cyclists, off-leash dogs, that sort of thing.

Quiet locales with meandering cross streets are perfect. They’ll remind her of where she grew up, so she can begin to make a positive connection with leaving you forever.

Once you’ve settled on the perfect neighborhood, pull over and take a deep slow breath. Gaze at an elaborate wooden swingset in someone’s backyard and wonder what the hell happened to all the years between the day she was born and the day she walked out of DMV triumphantly holding her learner permit. Cry.

Pick her up from school (or home school, as is the case these days) and drive her to her practice grounds. Patiently explain the steps she must take before she pulls away from the curb — check the mirrors, put the signal on, look behind the car, tap the gas (don’t stomp it!), and ease into the road. Ignore any subsequent eye rolls. (That last instruction is for you, not her.)

Snap a photo of her behind the wheel for social media archival purposes. Stare at the photo as she inches along the road and let it sink in that she is taking a literal step away from total dependence on you towards a life that will increasingly not involve you. Oh shit, now you’ve done it. You’re starting to cry again.

Sniff loudly, wipe your eyes, and feign allergies if she notices. Despite all your efforts to prevent it, you will flashback on her childhood as if you’re having an out of body experience. Attempt to block the image of her at age 3, strapped into a car seat in the back of this very same Toyota Matrix.

On second thought, bask in the memory of her at three (all wide-eyed smiles, stuffed animal cuteness, and lots of pink). Refrain from mentioning this memory as she lurches to a halt because she was spooked by an oncoming car. Also refrain from gripping the dashboard and yelping in fear as your phone flies from your shaking hands to the cluttered floor.

Silently remind yourself that you bought a bottle of your favorite wine and you plan to have one (possibly two) glasses if you manage to survive this outing.

Praise her bravery when she pulls back into the road. Gently encourage her when she panics and coasts to a stop thirty feet from a stop sign. Don’t rush her even though she’s creeping along at 15 miles per hour. Remember, one day in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be begging her to slow down.

Avoid thinking too far ahead.

Avoid pointing out every possible obstacle and snag — the pothole near the shoulder, the unpredictable squirrel, the way the road hooks sharply left.

Avoid visualizing fiery crashes and punctured tires and distracted drivers who blow red lights. Uh oh. Now you’ve done it. As images of shattered glass and twisted metal fill your mind, take another deep breath.

Focus on the road in front of you. She’s safe now. She’s beside you. You can worry about all those future hazards on all those future roads when the time comes (and it will come).

“Mom!”

“Sorry, what?”

“Are my hands in the right place?”

Look at her hands — her young, beautiful, unmarred hands — which are gripping the steering wheel hard enough to make her knuckles turn white.

“Yes, sweetie, 10 and 2!”

“No, Mom, 9 and 3. That’s what it was on the permit test.”

“Oh that’s right. I think it was 10 and 2 when I was learning how to drive.”

You will now pause and consider the vast chasm of years between this moment and a day in the late 1980s when you first got behind the wheel of a car. But what car? That was 30+ years ago, so you can’t be expected to remember. It was probably the bright yellow 1969 Nova that your family had dubbed “the banana mobile.” No, that’s not right. You think hard, but for the life of you, cannot recall the first car you drove.

There is only one memory that floats to the surface of your addled brain. You were a junior taking high school Driver’s Ed. It was your turn behind the wheel and you were terrified. You were supposed to put your foot on the brake, put the car in reverse, and back out slowly. But for some reason, you put the car in drive and pushed the gas pedal to the floor.

The teacher (sitting in the passenger seat) had a brake pedal on her side of the car for just such emergencies. She hit the brake, averting disaster and said, “What the hell are you doing?” in front of the other three students in the car. The deep mortification you felt in that moment rushes back. You look at your hands and refrain from sharing this memory with your teenager, silently praying that she never makes the same mistake.

“Mom! Are you even paying attention?”

What was I saying? Oh right. Driving lessons. Make sure you stay alert. Don’t let your mind wander to the distant past. Teaching a teenage girl to drive requires constant vigilance.

“Yes, of course I’m paying attention.”

Keep your voice neutral and stress free. Tell her how proud you are of her. Point out that she’s already getting comfortable with the feel of the car, easing her toe onto the gas, coasting to a stop fifteen feet before the stop sign, and being vigilant about pedestrians when they appear in her line of sight.

In a few years she’ll completely forget that, once upon a time, she didn’t know how to drive. A decade from now she’ll drive up to your house in her new hybrid, a baby strapped snugly in the plush car seat, the trunk filled with supplies for a weekend visit.

“Don’t park on the snow or we’ll get stuck!”

You should not shriek this at her when she veers off the road to avoid driving past a woman pushing a stroller. If this happens, she will glare at you and return to the passenger seat, signifying that today’s lesson is over.

Drive in silence all the way home. As you pull into your driveway, apologize for your outburst and tell your teenage daughter how proud you are of her.

You will be (understandably) relieved to be home in one piece. This was a right of passage, a milestone, a literal and figurative passage from childhood to adulthood. You got the first lesson over with. Good for you!

Now, do it all over again again tomorrow and every day for the next four months until she gets her driver’s license. (Make sure you stock up on your favorite wine).

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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