Driving instruction is our parenting challenge | Two Decades of Kids and Counting | Sally Torbey | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

View all posts from Sally Torbey

Driving instruction is our parenting challenge

Uploaded: Nov 17, 2013
Our daughter turned 13 a few weeks ago. Of course we are thrilled to have another teenager in the house, especially one so sensible that she has not asked for a Facebook account yet. Still, looking at all those candles on the cake gave me pause. A quick calculation confirmed my fears, only two and a half more years before we teach her to drive!

In most areas of parenting, my husband and I are lucky to have complementary skills. When one of us lacks in confidence or ability, the other parent steps up. Driving instruction is one notable exception. In addition to the requirement of six hours of professional behind the wheel instruction, in order to obtain their license, teenagers under the age of 18 are required to have 50 additional hours of practice with a parent. We try to out source these hours with professional instructors, but for some puzzling reason our kids prefer to drive with us.

My husband learned to drive in his country of origin under sniper fire. Staying alive was a higher priority than stopping at stop signs and following the rules of the road. To this day, in his hometown, stop signs are considered merely "a suggestion". A few years back, the first stoplight was installed. A soldier in a tank with a machine gun was also installed at the intersection so drivers would notice and stop at the red light. There are no designated lanes, and if traffic is backed up, drivers careen over the median and drive the wrong way on the other side of the highway.

Understandably, driving in the US was one of my husband's more difficult cultural adjustments. He received a lot of driving citations, culminating with a letter from the DMV informing him that "driving is a privilege and not a right", and that he was among the top 3 percent worst drivers in the state. My husband eventually adjusted his habits and has not had a citation for many decades, but he is still a little hazy on some of the finer points when trying to teach the kids driving skills.

If we had known how unsuited I also am to this task, we might have settled for fewer children. This is yet again an instance of my not appreciating my parents sufficiently. My mother had nerves of steel, never raising her voice or appearing anxious as I side swiped cars on my first outing. My younger brother sat traumatized in the back seat. It was ten years before he would let me drive him again.

I cannot emulate my mother's calm demeanor. While instructing a new driver, I get toe cramps from pushing my foot against my imaginary brake pedal in the passenger side footwell. Once, after a driving session, I had such severe tooth pain I was sure I needed a couple of root canals. My dentist assured me there was absolutely nothing wrong with my teeth that unclenching them would not cure.

Teaching our teens to drive is nerve wracking because it reveals the aggressive side of drivers in our community. A few blocks from our home, our son hesitated a fraction of a second too long before making a right turn at a stop sign. The driver behind us was so enraged at the delay that he veered around our car into the bike lane and roared through the intersection. Driving at the 25 mile per hour speed limit on Middlefield Road is another nightmare. Other drivers tailgate, honk and gesture obscenities as they speed past.

Despite our inadequacies, our teenagers all learned to drive well, but we are hoping that those cars that drive themselves will be widely available before we need to undertake this task again. Better yet, a driverless car that also teaches our kids to drive!

Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Matthew, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Interesting perspective on your ability to teach kids driving.

Posted by NativeTulsan, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Another great post!

Posted by ds, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm

I vividly remember how hard it was to watch my 16-year-old drive away by himself for the first time! He is a good driver, but I still worry about other drivers, bikers, pedestrians -- all challenges for young drivers. (He still does not love for me to be in the passenger seat ...)

Posted by Margaret, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Hilarious! We all have used the imaginary brake! Also, I have noticed that while this should get easier with each child...each child has a different way of accepting feedback/criticism! Adding to the challenge!

Posted by Laura , a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Sally, I sit here laughing out loud! This was hilarious!! I remember being a 15 1/2 year old new driver with a permit and my parents having me drive on family outings in order for me to get my "hours" in. My parents would turn white and my sisters would scream from the back that they were going to die! It\\\'s a miracle that I ever got a license - scoring the lowest score you can to pass....a 70%. ha ha.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Excellent post. I'm right in the trenches with my teenager now. He called me a back seat driver; I corrected his terminology to mother of permit holder.

Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Teaching a teen to drive here is definitely hazardous and nailbiting. In Britain, Ireland, Australia, and probably other countries, it is the law for a learner driver to put big L plates (for learner) on front and back of the car. This alerts all other road users to a novice who may make mistakes. It also alerts all other road users that the front passenger may be the one to make hand signals, wave thanks or look more in charge than the person behind the wheel. It really does help.

As a consequence, we have bought yellow student driver magnetized decals from Amazon and yes, it makes a difference here to other road users' perception of the teens driving skills.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Matthew,
Thanks for reading and commenting!

Thanks, NativeTulsan, for your support!

Dear ds,
Yes, and we mistakenly thought our sleepless nights of their early childhood were over. It starts all over again when they take the car for the evening.

Hi Margaret!
Thanks for the comment! When I am in a heightened state of anxiety it is definitely challenging to preserve the teen driver/parent instructor relationship, as I am not particularly tactful or sensitive to their sensitivity to criticism!

Hi Laura,
Even though it was almost 40 years ago that I learned to drive, I am pretty sure I still see my younger brother discreetly wiping sweat from his brow when I'm driving.

Dear Parent,
I am borrowing your term "mother of a permit holder" for the next go around. Thanks for the tip!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Brit,
Interesting to learn how it is done abroad, the learner sign law makes a lot of sense. I wonder what it would take to enact that law here? I've seen home made cardboard signs in car rear windows, and we were considering that approach, but I just checked out your recommendation of the MagnaCard Magnetic Student Driver Bumper Sticker on Amazon. At $5.19 a piece with free shipping, we're springing for two, one for both cars!

Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm

I love this story, especially the addition of cultural differences to the experience of teaching teens to drive. Keep your great stories coming.

Posted by Kirsten, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Glad to bond with another teeth clencher! You never realize how narrow the Palo Alto roads are until you have two sides of parked cars and one permit holder in an SUV!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for the encouragement!

Dear Kirsten,
Add a couple of parked construction vehicles and consider yourself fortunate if you still have the side view mirrors!

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Great post, Sally--thank you!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 6:32 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, PR!

Posted by Edita, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 7:39 am

Do you have any good teaching tips?

Posted by Cheap shot, a resident of Midtown,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm

"especially one so sensible that she has not asked for a Facebook account yet."
Cheap shot at Facebook users.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Fifty hours? Times five kids? Oh my! I think that would push even a calm parent over the edge.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Edita,
I'd love to hear readers' tips!
A few things come to mind...
Parking lots in off hours (like the high schools or the mall) are great for a first outing. Saturday and Sunday mornings are the quietest on the roads, although it is not easy to get a teen up early on the weekends! New drivers gain confidence and skills faster if they drive the same route over and over again for the first month or so. I made the mistake of driving in different neighborhoods with my son, thinking it was good to expose him to new situations, but it is too much right away. Find one or two regular driving practice routes until they are more skilled and then branch out later. I will be using Brit's recommendation and will have a student driver sign on the car next time. Hopefully that will clue in other drivers to give us a wide berth! I like Parent's suggestion to clarify the relationship in the car as one of a parent instructor/student. The parent is not just a chaperone and observer (or back seat driver), but as a parent of a permit holder, has an obligation to give instruction and criticism as well as encouragement.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear cheap shot,
Thank you for reading and commenting. I am a Facebook user, but I think it is sensible for my daughter to wait.

Thanks, LJ, for reading and commenting. My mother taught five kids to drive and somehow remained calm and collected!

Posted by BLH, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 19, 2013 at 9:12 am

Great reminder - little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems. I will try to relish the little kid problems a bit more this week.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 19, 2013 at 9:28 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear BLH,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Fortunately there is a lot of fun at all stages, too!

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Nov 19, 2013 at 11:33 am

I recommend Web Link for everybody!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks for the tip, Maria! Have you used the lesson yourself or for your teen, or both?

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Nov 21, 2013 at 7:26 am

I don't know what it is, but for some reason the average driver in Palo Alto seems totally unsuited for driving. For example, I happened to find out about and go to the Lyfe Kitchen restaurant a few times near Hamilton and Emerson. The stoplight there was out there for a week, it may still be out. If it is, go there and look at how clueless most drivers, maybe many drivers, are when confronted with either a dead or just blinking stop light.

I am sure your daughter will be more than up to the task of navigating a broken or flashing stoplight, or a 4-way stop sign for that matter, but most Palo Altans don't seem to be able to understand the most simple thing about it, or courtesy, or reason. The reason they let 15 1/2 year olds drive is that they have sufficient intelligence and maturity to handle a motor vehicle ... at least when they are not around other 15 1/2 year olds.

I wish I could say the same thing for the average Palo Altan, "Bay Arean", Californian - so far I've noticed drivers from other states pay more attention and follow the rules. Somehow around the Bay Area there must be something in the water that affects people as they get older than 15 1/2 so that they get sluggish, lazy, scatter-brained, selfish, reckless, foolish and thoughtless - not to mention rude or just plain mean.

From running stop signs to take root behind them, Palo Alto drivers do not seem to know whether they are coming or going. it does seem that the more expensive the car the more drivers seem to think they have "license" to do whatever they want. Then, finally after all that bad driving, when they get to the parking lots many insist on parking on two spaces - see the lot behind Izzies Bagels as the best model of how not to park in Palo Alto.

I can't wait for self-driving cars.

Posted by Karen, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 21, 2013 at 11:53 am

Great article and something that I get to look forward to (although I worry about all those OTHER drivers). My dad did that job for me and my siblings (with some nice language thrown in), but we had an aunt that took on that task with all her nieces and nephews! What a saint!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 21, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear CrescentParkAnon,
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I'm checking in with my kids (and husband) to make sure they know what to do at a broken stoplight!
I think many folks are driving around tired and distracted, which makes it difficult to focus on driving. I made a resolution a few weeks ago to make sleep a priority (the time change helped with that extra hour), and I am really noticing the difference. Maybe we just need to sleep more so we can drive better.
The lot behind Izzies is frustrating. I think those parking spots are on the small side. One car slightly off center and there is a ripple effect down the line.
I agree, those self- driving cars can't get on the road fast enough!

Dear Karen,
Glad you are still looking forward to having your teen driving! It is nice not having to take the slippers off and head back out into the night to pick up a teen from the movie theater at 10:30pm.
I nominate your aunt for sainthood for volunteering for extra driving instructor duty!

Posted by Cyclist2, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

We taught our kids to follow the rules of the road while on their bicycles too, such as stopping at stop signs, red lights, and signaling before making a turn. We hope this will help them become good drivers when that day comes. Great tip about the magnetic student driver bumper stickers!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 23, 2013 at 9:14 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Cyclist2,
Thanks for reading and commenting. No question, good bike safety skills translate well into safe driving. You will reap the benefits of teaching those skills now! What didn't transfer as well as we expected was navigation skills. Even though our kids had biked to a specific location many times, they couldn't necessarily find their way easily by car. Apparently familiar spots looked different to them from the vantage point of a car, and they'd get confused.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Worried about the cost of climate change? Here is some hope.
By Sherry Listgarten | 23 comments | 3,386 views

Two Hours - 75,000 Meals – Wanna Help?
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,843 views


Sign-up now for 5K Run/Walk, 10k Run, Half Marathon

The 39th annual Moonlight Run and Walk is Friday evening, September 29. Join us under the light of the full Harvest Moon on a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon. Complete your race in person or virtually. Proceeds from the race go to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, benefiting local nonprofits that serve families and children in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.