Driving Instruction

How to Teach a Teen to Drive: Part 1

June 29, 2021

How to Teach a Teen to Drive: Part 1

True Confession: My first piece of advice as I sit down to write this is, “Don't do it! Hire a professional to teach your teen to drive!” This crazy suggestion comes from my years of experience, first as a homeschool mom gamely taking my own kids out for their first lessons, and now as a trained veteran, having taught scores of teens to drive.

How to Communicate with Your Teen Effectively:

I remember my first driving lesson with my eldest daughter. I almost blacked out from fright. Seriously. I saw stars and heard myself emitting a high pitched keening wail as we drifted closer and closer to the brink of a 3-foot gully on the passenger side (MY SIDE) of the road -- true story!  If I had known the simplest, most powerful trick in my now-professional bag of teaching techniques, I would have simply reached my hand over and gently adjusted the wheel to center the vehicle. So that is my first actual piece of advice for you brave parents, determined to rush in where angels fear to tread … accustom your student/teen to allow you to assist in steering, especially at first.  The teachers in our school are all trained to “drive from the passenger seat,”  and have occasionally had to steer the car off busy roads while the student driver was having a panic attack or seizure.


How to Avoid Overreactions:

Now be careful with that technique. I have known parents who actually grabbed the steering wheel when they themselves panicked. Second piece of advice, don't overreact! The qualifications for driving instructors at our school include:  “The successful candidate will have nerves of steel and the patience of Job (and a Ph.D. in psychology doesn’t hurt!)” Some parents tend to raise their voice when their student/child does something wrong. This can create tension in the student, which is never good for his driving performance. So take a chill pill and stay calm! There’s a pretty good margin for error in driving so you probably aren’t going to fall off the road if your student drifts too far from the center.

How to Understand Space:

That brings up another suggestion. Facilitate your student/teen's understanding of the location of the car in space.  Did you know that many students can’t tell where their car is with reference to a curb or a center line because they can’t see it from the driver’s seat? When I do my first lessons with a student in a parking lot, I spend a fair amount of time having them stop in the middle of maneuvers, and then get out and see where their car is. Most students will learn to place their vehicle in space instinctively after a short period of experimentation; but if they don’t get out and check, some can go a long while without ever really learning to control the vehicle’s placement consistently.

How to Use Reference Points:

And then there are those poor souls who can’t see where their car is after literally years of trial and error. That was me before I became a teacher - you know the old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I drove for 30 years without being able to parallel park, being unwilling to park in between two vehicles because I might hit one of them coming or going, and leaving my car at strange angles and too far out from the space because my parking job was “good enough.” But then I became a teacher and learned how to teach driving to people like me who couldn’t “just see it.” Teach the new teen driver to navigate from reference points.

Both newbies and ungifted people (like me) can benefit greatly from understanding how to see where their car is based on fixed points that are visible from within the vehicle. It’s kind of complicated, but once you get the idea, navigating from reference points becomes the key to teaching people to consistently and precisely place the vehicle where it belongs. Let me illustrate with an example. When you are pulling forward into a parking space, how do you know when to stop? Even if you lost an eye and had no depth perception at all, you could do it perfectly every time by utilizing the reference points for “front limitation.”  One reference point is the position of a car in an adjacent parking space. If you pull your car up to match the position of another parked car, you will be in the right position. But what if there isn’t another car, how can you know how far forward you are? The standard reference point for front limitation compares the position of the side view mirrors with the front line you are approaching.

how to teach a teen to park


Here’s an exercise you can try for yourself, and you should definitely teach it to your student/teen.

  1. Get into the driver’s seat of your car and pull into the middle space of a row of empty front-in parking spaces.
  2. Make sure that there are at least 3 or 4 empty spaces on both sides and the white line marking the front of the row of spaces is clear and visible.
  3. As you pull forward into the parking space, you will not be able to see the line you are approaching directly - the front of your car will be in the way - but you will be able to see where it is if you look out the side windows on both sides. As you inch forward, the line will appear to go down and down, behind your side view mirrors, and finally, it will be visible under the bottom edge of your side view mirrors on both sides.
  4. At that point, you are close to the front of the parking space.  
  5. Get out and see how close your car is, adjust accordingly, and then get back in and make a note of how far under the bottom edge of the side view mirrors the extended front line of the parking space appears to be.
  6. Forevermore, when you pull into a front-in parking space, you can watch the lower edge of the side view mirrors and stop at the exact right spot with respect to the front of the space.

This is an example of using something you can see from the driver’s seat to help you gauge what you can't see directly. This is navigating by reference points.

These are just a few of the important parts to teaching a teen how to drive. I could go on and on!  I think I will. Watch for my next blog, How to Teach Your Teen To Drive: Part 2.