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Licensed to drive: how to handle the driving conversation with my teen driver

It’s the most bittersweet of milestones. We can’t wait for it to finally get here, and then when it does, we find ourselves buckling under the impending stress and worry it brings. It’s the day when we finally have a child old enough to drive.

A new and very welcome responsibility
For many parents, this moment brings with it welcome relief from the seemingly never-ending taxi-ing duties we’ve had for years. I know it did for me! I couldn’t wait to have a child drive himself to school and sports, allowing my schedule to open up and freeing me from constant chauffeuring demands. As for my son, his eagerness to hit the highway excited me, and I was relieved he was ready and willing to embrace his new freedom, rather than shy away from added responsibility.

But for us both, him driving would be unchartered territory, and one that would require a great deal of mutual trust and respect, as well as a deeper understanding of exactly how much of a privilege being able to drive a car truly is. I didn’t want my teen to simply assume because he reached driving age, that he had a “right” to drive. To get behind the wheel as a teen is as much a privilege as it is a right, and I wanted our first conversations about driving to be based on that fact, that at any time his “right” to drive could be taken away from him.

Starting to talk real driving with your teen
In the months he spent learning to drive with me as a passenger, we talked at length about basic rules of the road, about typical driving hazards and conditions to be aware of, and about unspoken rules of sharing the road gracefully with other drivers. But when it came time for him to drive solo, our conversations turned more serious, and we discussed mutually writing a “driving contract” that both he and I would sign. For many parents, putting down on paper their teen driving expectations, rules, and consequences make the most sense. It did for us, as it became something we could refer back to again and again. This is especially important when teenagers try to “push their driving limits,“ which is inevitable at that age.

Having a contract that is both written together, signed together, and one in which both parent and teen agree is “fair,” will not only save you from potential driving disagreements, it’s also a lesson in negotiation skills and teaching teenagers to stand behind their word.

Benefits of a mutual driving contract between you and your teen
When creating our driving contract, I wanted to make sure the rules set didn’t come across as only “my rules,” but that my teen understood these are basic driving rules that drivers of every age must abide by.

Our contract covered all the common sense rules, plus things like texting and drunk driving, but I also talked about distracted driving, a term we frequently hear now but that’s not clearly defined. We agreed on what he considered distractions (phone going off) and what I considered distractions (other teenagers in the car, loud music and eating) how we would limit all of those, and at what point I would allow him to have other teenagers in the car with him.

Our contract also allowed for flexibility, as I knew there would be times one of my rules would have to be broken. For example, restricting any nighttime driving, only to have my son’s soccer game run late, leaving him driving home after dark without a choice.

Creating a solid, yet flexible contract
You’ll find your teenager will be very receptive to a contract in which he has a lot of say in writing, as well as one that includes incentives after several months of safe driving. (Think more driving time, more freedom or having other teen passengers as rewards for safe driving.)

Keeping the contract “open,” and having random but important driving conversations continually going between my son and I have been one of my top priorities during this time. I’ll often tell him about something that happened to me on the road. It’s as easy as saying, “So the other day I was driving and I saw in front of me what looked like someone with road rage, so I slowed way down, allowing others to pass me, so I would be nowhere near an accident or an encounter with that driver. Have you seen ever seen what you think is road rage? What did you do?”

Another example would be, “I was driving your brother home from practice the other day around 5:30 p.m.. Have you noticed at that time drivers seem more anxious because it’s the end of the work day and they just want to get home? Have you ever noticed how time of day affects how people drive?” Even after just a few weeks behind the wheel, my teen would tell me about odd driving situations he had encountered, and I knew it was because I had shared my experiences with him that it felt normal and natural to just talk “driving” stuff.

Trust your new driver
I have two teen drivers in the house, and while you would think that would send any mom on high anxiety alert, I’ve managed to put a great deal of faith in my teenagers during the learn-to-drive process. I’ve trusted that if we keep our driving conversations open, respectful, honest, and frequent, my teens will grow both as smart mature drivers, and smart young men. So far it’s working.