The Driving Force of Parenting
My sixteen year old son is learning to drive. He’s number six of seven, so I’ve been down this road before, so to speak. As they are in the rest of their lives, each of the kids has been different in the driver’s seat. But there are some parenting lessons I’ve learned from teaching my kids how to drive:
1. Spend plenty of time on theory. In my state, a young driver needs to attend three weeks of classroom instruction before getting in the driver’s seat. During those three weeks, he learns rules of the road. Each time I want my son to do something new in the car, we discuss it before the car starts moving. I do my best to tell him in short, clear sentences what I want him to do, and what he can expect the result to be. The same holds true in the rest of life: our kids need (and often want) our guidance, but they want it in ways that make sense to them.
2. Test the brakes early and often. The first thing I have my kids do when they learn to drive is to pull out of the driveway and slam on the brakes. I want them to know how the brake pedal feels when they step on it. I want them to feel how the car feels as it jerks to a stop. I want them to command the brake pedal, not make suggestions to it. I want them to know what they control. I do the same thing the first time they drive in rain and in snow. I want them to get a feel for stopping distances, for the shimmy in the brake pedal when the ABS activates, for the feeling in the steering wheel as the brakes engage, for the tug on the seat belts as the pre-tensioners tighten. In their lives I want them to know how to put on the brakes, too. I hope they’ll know how to say no to friends (or non-friends). I hope they’ll learn to walk away from temptation. I want them to learn what they really control in their lives (and what they don’t).
3. Offer way more encouragement than correction. I have learned over time (the hard way) that my kids learn much better if I can offer gentle encouragement often rather than offering only occasional correction. Especially in the early weeks, I tell my son everything he does right as soon as he does it. “That was good slowing down before the curve.” “Good execution at that stop sign.” “That’s a good rate of acceleration.” “That’s a good job of staying under the speed limit.” In any trip, I am constantly offering positive feedback of every good thing I see him do – as many as six or eight times a minute. I do that for two reasons: First, I want him to map those positive behaviors in his brain so that he’ll use them when I’m not in the car. Second, I want a huge store of positive comments so that when I do have to correct him, it’s not the only thing he notices. It takes time for this pattern to work. In the first day or two, there is a lot of correcting that goes on, but quickly the kids learn what to do, and the minute they do something right, I try to tell them. I know if I did this in other areas of their lives, it would be better for them. It’s something I am really working on as a dad, and I am much better at it now than I used to be. That’s evident to me in the relationship I have with this sixteen-year-old compared with others I’ve had.
4. Make corrections clear and to the point. When my son is driving, he does not need a lecture. He needs instruction, sometimes very quickly. (“Stop now.” “Slow down.” “Prepare to turn now.”) Telling him he never slows down soon enough does no good at all. What is important when he is driving is the here-and-now. He also does not need me to scream, even though I sometimes do. And even if I scream, it better be with very clear and concise instructions. Yelling his name does nothing to help him drive better. And the second he’s done what I ask him to do, I need to help him see that he succeeded. This is a lesson I have retaught myself with each new driver, and one that I often forget in real life. When our kids need correction, they need clear, concise direction, not angry lectures and name-calling.
5. Show a little faith. Have your kids ever said, “You don’t trust me!” when you wouldn’t let them do what they want to do? Mine have. And usually I’ve been able to say, “You’re right. I don’t trust you.” But it’s not because I don’t love them that I don’t trust them. It’s because I’ve had more time on the planet and therefore more experience. That’s true in driving and in the rest of life, too. I remind my teenage driver that I’m allowed to comment on his driving because I’ve had over 35 years of driving experience compared with his few weeks. On the other hand, though, I need to show that I have faith in him and in his ability to learn. Each of his siblings learned to drive, and all of them are exceptionally safe drivers today (even the ones who went through a crash-rich period in their late teens). There is no reason to believe he won’t master this skill over time. I need to tell him I believe he can learn, and demonstrate that faith by allowing him to practice (and even allowing him to have a close call or two along the way). My kids need to know I believe in them in other areas of their lives, too. We do not all agree on all the choices they are making. But there is some common ground I have with each of them, and I do believe that each of them can succeed in his own way. They need to know I believe that, too.
Driver training is a great exercise in parenting. The principles that allow me to teach my son to drive also allow me to be a better father.
- What principles allow you to be a better parent?
- How do you apply those principles consistently?
- How do you know when to change your approach?