MARY THOMAS: Losing it while traveling with a teen driver

If there’s something that causes more angst and division between a parent and teenager than driving lessons, please let me know what it is. Shopping excursions, discussions about the birds and bees, a two-week cross-country family vacation crammed into a mini-van – all these things combined fail to create as much tension as when your teen places her hands at 10-and-2 on the steering wheel.

You’ve probably spotted me on the road through the years. I’m the one in the passenger seat, contorted like a pretzel, my mouth permanently agape as I let out intermittent screams of horror. My life has passed before me so many times, it’s on a permanent reel. I’m here to tell you – driving with a teen and free-falling off the edge of the Grand Canyon are one and the same. Give me the Canyon any day.

I have survived two tours of duty with teens, and am in the midst of my third. As a veteran roadie, I’ve noticed a pattern among beginner drivers. For instance, they believe any car coming toward them in the opposite lane is going to hit them, therefore, the tires on the passenger side (my side, by the way) straddle the shoulder and sometimes a ditch.

As parents, we don’t want to lose it. We like to feel we can remain strong and steady under pressure, and so we try holding onto sanity for a few seconds. “Over, honey. Over. Need to get over,” we coax with as much kindness as we can muster. But when the car begins to angle and your face is pressed flat against the glass window, it’s time to raise the decibels. “GET OVER NOW!!!! WE’RE GOING TO DIE!!!!”

Teen drivers never want to be mistaken for someone in training. They want to drive with one hand loosely draped over the wheel. They want to crank up the radio. They want the parent to disappear. And if a car begins to pass them, they take it personally, as if someone hung out the window and yelled, “Hey, Meemaw on McCullough. Move it!” Suddenly, the gas pedal is deployed and the race is on. Do they know how silly it looks for a silver mini-van with 150,000 miles to take on a Maserati? If anything screams “Student Driver,” it’s that.

All three of my kids have told me they hate learning how to drive with me in the car. Type A personalities and a teen merging into 70-mile-per-hour traffic do not contribute to world peace.

“Dad never loses it in the car,” they’ll say, prying my hands off the dashboard. Do you know why? Because Dads live in denial. They are busy filling out tax returns or clipping fingernails while their teens take out a line of mailboxes. That’s the way Dads handle stress. They smile while reaching for a defibrillator.

“Good job!” all Dads will say as the car comes to a jolting stop, inches from the garage wall. “And look, you even brought in the garbage can.” Of course, he won’t ask why the car is on top of it.

In spite of my recoils and screams, our third child, the teen-in-training, is a fast learner. I don’t know if it’s because she’s been a passenger as her older siblings learned to drive or because she is better at tuning me out. But she’s driven over only a handful of curbs and not once have we had to dislodge a tree limb from under the front grill. Simply amazing.

Let’s face it, as passengers, parents are forced to relinquish control, and it’s an uncomfortable place to be, isn’t it? If we allowed ourselves to dig deeper into the psyche, we might even see this as a foreboding. One day, as aging parents, we really will have to swallow our pride, relinquish the keys, and allow our kids to drive us around.

That’s why it’s a good idea to teach them how to keep the tires on the road and out of the ditches, even if it means tossing out a few choice words along the way.

Mary Thomas of Tupelo is an independent journalist and Daily Journal community columnist. Contact her at

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