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A former air force pilot trainer on teaching your teen to drive

Fatherhood is a funny thing. After 16 years of single-minded, laser focus on nothing but keeping your kid alive each day, you give them control of a one-ton death machine, strap yourself helplessly into the passenger seat, and say, “Go.” Teaching your kid to be brave is easy; staying brave while teaching them to drive requires the steely resolve of a 20-year Air Force veteran flight instructor like Michael “Moose” Moore. He was simultaneously the primary instructor for fighter pilots in F-4s and F-15s and his three kids in a Volkswagen with 4-speed shifters, and he’ll be the first to tell you that the fear of sending either on that first solo run never really leaves. That doesn’t mean you can’t prepare them like a top gun, but shirtless beach volleyball in jeans is definitely best left to the professionals.

Prepare early and for everything

That goes for them and for you. Preparation is your most effective weapon for minimizing risk and maximizing reward. For the first lesson, bring them to a big, empty parking lot and cover the basics where the danger presented by other drivers is removed. When you think they’re ready to move on to the driveway, your street, and beyond, meticulously plan the route. Review it. Visualize it. Review it again. Sit in the car together and visualize it. Let them know what’s about to happen, in detail, to eliminate surprises as much as possible. Demonstrate first when possible. Talk them through everything—even how annoying your side-seat driving is about to be.

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“Let them know, ‘It’s not gonna be fun, I’m gonna try to talk to you.’ Otherwise it’s hard to listen and drive at the same time. Give them warnings. Use keywords: speed, distance, watch your spacing. Pre-brief them a little bit.” If you want to sound extra cool, do so in aviation terminology, like Moose still can’t help himself from doing. “The windshield is the windscreen. Check 6, look at your 3-9 line, have an escape route, know where you’re gonna bail out.” Okay, maybe not that last one.

Stay calm, stay positive

If you don’t want your kid to hit your fence, don’t let them know you’re secretly afraid they will. Moore earned his stripes during the Vietnam era on a steady diet of sarcasm and ridicule from instructors, which taught him how much emotions affect learning and performance, and informed his approach to teaching. “Yelling and screaming was not the answer. Staying cool, calm, and collected ruled the day. You were worried something could happen, but you showed confidence to instill confidence in them. If they weren’t ready you just didn’t send them. Instead, it’s, ‘We’ll do another ride.’”

If it looks like they’re about to hit the fence anyway, tell them, “Wind your watch.” That’s pilot-speak for take a deep breath, assess the situation, then take action. If that doesn’t stop them hitting the fence, stay composed and allow them to correct their mistake. “I discovered a long time ago, whenever you’re teaching anybody anything, make sure the lesson ends in success,” he says. “Even if it’s just pulling forward and easing into the brakes to stop and put it in park, that can be a successful day. Never end on a negative note—emotions have to go out of it.”

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Let them try (and fail at) everything

Moore suggests the best way to “let them know where the edge of the envelope is” is to let them experience all the things you can’t simulate in the mall parking lot, from navigating in darkness to enduring crazy thunderstorms to hauling your sleeping parents two-and-a-half hours home after midnight at age 15. (“It was my third child. By the third, that wasn’t too intense.”)

Essentially, learning to drive amounts to learning from mistakes—the stakes are just higher. “The first time you lose control of your car driving in the snow and hit a mailbox, you learn not to downshift on an icy road going 30 miles an hour. Some lessons they have to learn the hard way. As a parent you don’t crush them. You say, ‘Great lesson, let’s move on.’”

That won’t always be easy, but remember that it’s going to be a struggle (for both of you) and press on. “I taught my daughters to drive a Volkswagen with 4-speed shifters and that was a challenge,” says Moore. “She’d get mad, I’d stay calm. She’d want to get out, I wouldn’t let her. Just try to be patient.”

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Don’t hide the seriousness

If your kid is phubbing you during your pre-drive pep talk on the importance of checking your mirrors, politely take out a map, point somewhere along their route, and tell them an accident can occur anywhere. That’s essentially what Moose once did for one of his private flight school pupils, a guy who’d flown maybe 50 hours 20 years earlier but was nonetheless confident he’d nail a solo flight for his new job at an aviation fuel company. “It shook him up. He realized what I was trying to tell him. There’s no such thing as a part-time pilot. The same thing applies to driving.”

If you’re worried that might scare your kids to death, consider the potential consequences of hiding the dangers of driving from them—like death, for instance. “My opinion is you don’t hide dangers from kids. It’s about understanding consequences. In aviation, we all knew the ground would always win the fight. We poopoo the consequences with cars, but I’m sure more kids die in automobiles than aircraft. I’d much rather fly any day than drive.”

It’s okay to be scared

The sooner you accept that fear is part of the deal, the quicker you can move on to confidently imparting all of the above lessons, but make no mistake: you will never not feel like you’re about to puke. “Your stomach’s in knots the whole time. You’re putting your own foot through the floorboard thinking it’s the brake. It’s not easy,” Moore says. “The first time they go off by themselves you might as well have a stack of Tums for your stomach. It gets easier but that doesn’t go away.” If Moose can admit it, so can you.