"Turn. No, turn more! TURN TURN TURN! Now straighten up! Slow down! You don't have to break that hard. Now go back so we can try that again."
This is the instruction you can hear on the weekends in almost any school parking lot, when moms and dads are trying to teach their 14- and 15-year-olds how to drive.
In states like mine, you can get your driver's permit at 15 and your full license at 16. When my daughter’s age began accelerating toward 15 early last year, we started doing the basics of Daddy Driver's Ed. And that usually involved going to a big elementary school parking lot on a Saturday and teaching turns, parking and, most importantly, how to set up Bluetooth streaming from your Spotify.
My daughter was a nervous driver—especially at first, when she kept worrying that she was going to stomp her foot on the gas when she meant to go slower. Or when she worried that driving on the highway would always be too stressful for her.
I tried to be the cool dad. The relaxed dad. But it's really, really difficult, and here's why. Aside from the fact that you're riding shotgun in a multi-ton piece of metal, glass, and plastic with someone who literally does not know how to properly operate the thing, there are some emotional speed bumps to navigate before you can trust your kid to be behind the wheel.
You can try to impart good habits and instruct them all you want, but in the end, as in life, they will eventually take the wheel and choose a route of their own.
For me, that emo sore spot was the idea that raising kids goes by really fast. It doesn't feel that long ago that this was a kid who used to poop her diapers and I was tasked with cleaning that up. (Yes, I know, they all do that. It's still messed up.) This was a kid who used to have yelling tantrums when her sister demolished her Lego creations. This was a kid who loses her earbuds roughly five times a day. How could I trust her with a dangerous automobile? Especially if I’m not there to monitor her driving upon obtaining her license?
It takes restraint. It takes letting go of not only the wheel, but also the idea that this kid—your kid—is still a child. Yes, they're a child to you, but to the state of Texas, my daughter is practically an adult. At 15, she was trustworthy enough, legally, to drive a car while an adult sat in the passenger seat. Only a year later, Texas declared, my daughter was mature and responsible to be out on the highway with all the other terrible drivers, spinning the roulette wheel of public safety.
Who was I to believe she couldn't do it?
As a parent, it's hard to get the image out of your head of your growing, near-adult kid not being a pre-teen or a toddler or an infant. Those images are burned into your memory; they're what come up on your phone as images under Favorites. They're still your baby, and that they're old enough to put miles on a car is so tragic and screwed up. But it must be accepted.
Do I get scared when my kid is driving now? Yes, but I also enjoy no longer being an at-home Uber driver. It's nice to tell your kid, "Hey, go pick up the pizza" and get to sit on the couch and finish the season of Gen V instead of being Errand Dad, like always. I'm enjoying seeing some scenery and doing some reading from the passenger seat.
I thought driving instruction would feel much longer. But between the online courses she took, our outings to parking lots and slow-traffic neighborhoods during off-peak hours, and, eventually, the highways she feared, the time flew. She got more confidence; I got less jumpy. She learned, at long last, how to parallel park (at least as decently as most of us bad drivers). The driver's exam came and she passed on the first try, just like I knew she would.
Milestones like this come and go, but when you're in it, seeing that driver's exam only a few months away, it can feel like there's no way it will ever really happen. It can be hard to picture.
But the rite of passage, this next step toward adulthood, is inevitable for most dads. You can try to impart good habits and instruct them all you want, but in the end, as in life, they will eventually take the wheel and choose a route of their own.
And you won't always be invited to help make sure they're driving the right way.