When Teens Learn to Drive: One Mom’s Survival Story

The Learner’s Permit: Permission to learn to drive a motor vehicle. The most exhilarating milestone for teens everywhere. And the most gut wrenching milestone for parents of teens everywhere.

Presumably, I have had 15 years and 9 months to prepare for this moment. In reality, all that time has shown me is that you can never really be prepared for this moment.

Parents help teen learn to drive

All of my children’s “firsts” are bittersweet. Each one a great accomplishment that inevitably made them stronger and led to their ebbing dependency on me. But learning to drive is the only milestone that requires insurance. And possibly anxiety meds or counseling for me.

I began this process by setting the stellar example of letting my son drive my car in an empty parking lot in the neighborhood before his permit was issued. Essentially, illegally. A big chance to take considering the County Police Headquarters is located half a block from said parking lot.

As I slid into the passenger seat, I turned to my son behind the wheel and it looked wrong. All wrong. Remember the movie “Freaky Friday?” I was stuck in a backwards, role reversal world and there was no escape.

So, like millions of parents before me, I plastered a smile on my face and spoke slowly and soothingly as I introduced him to the car’s dash and gear shift. I knew I sounded like I was talking someone off the ledge. I was and that someone was me.

Oh, I was one cool customer with the car in park. I talked about distractions. Never engaging the gear shift without the brake pedal depressed. What each gauge meant. I was so good. I covered it all in a breezy conversational tone.
Finally, the only thing left to review was the radio and he was well-practiced there. I had stalled long enough, it was time to drive.


And just like a million kids before him, my son gunned it immediately and then slammed on the brakes. This segment saved me going over the seat belt benefits. Instead, he got a real live demo as we jerked around the car unharmed.

He had only been driving approximately 30 seconds and I was ready to switch seats. According to MVA’s graduated licensing structure we only had 59 hours and 59.5 minutes to go during the next 9 months.

Well, once he got his permit anyway.

In the longest ten minutes of my life, he drove up and down the lot, parked between the lines and practiced backing out. All very uneventful until he got cocky and forgot to switch from reverse to drive and pressed too hard on the gas. We shot backwards where there was little room instead of forward where we had plenty of room. He slammed on the brakes but recovered nicely as I glanced in the side mirror to see exactly how close we were to the curb.

I caught a glimpse of my face and saw that I looked like the photos they take of people at the top of the roller coaster. The forced smile and wide open eyes screamed panic mixed with the reality of being trapped to endure the twists and turns until the ride ended.

[More on Parenting Teens here.]

But for us, the ride has just begun. And I am learning right there with him. The driving world has changed plenty in the 34 years since I first sat in his seat.

Who knew there were apps for practicing the written test? We had to carry around that booklet until it was worn and frayed and quizzed each other while we lay out in the sun with baby oil and iodine.

Driver’s Ed now costs nearly $700 for a two-week session which would have bought you a perfectly respectable car in my teen years. Driver’s education at my small, all girl school was taught by a woman who doubled as the media specialist and looked like she was going to suffer a heart attack each and every time we got in the car.

She eventually quit for her own sanity and we were left to trudge next door to the public high school. There, they touted their state-of-the-art simulators which are probably now on display at the Smithsonian with other relevant artifacts from the 80’s.

Practicing in my Yukon could nearly qualify my son for the Commercial Class license but if he masters that, he can drive anything – unlike me in my dad’s Honda which was like parallel parking a tricycle. And I couldn’t even pass with that vehicle on the first try.

Back in the parking lot, I tried to hide my relief as I climbed back behind the controls after this brief, initial outing. On the up side, he didn’t crash and I didn’t hold onto the dash or the bar above the passenger door once.

Or scream.
Or curse.
At least not out loud.

The down side is, he can’t wait to do it again; itchy to get out on the open road. Unlike me, because I know where that road goes. It eventually takes him away from me. And I am not at all prepared for that.


My Son Applied to Colleges Alone: A Cautionary Tale 

Dear Mom of High School Sophomore 

6 Things I Want My High School Junior To Know 

Photo credit: State Farm

About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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