Doing the floorboard stomp

Parenting holds many thrills, chills and worries, but none as spectacularly terrifying as teaching a teen-ager to drive.

Our older son is driving now, and it's a regular carnival ride every time we take the minivan out of the garage. Abrupt starts and stops and sweeping turns, breath-taking braking and heart-pounding near-misses, and concrete curbs that seem to leap right out in front of us. And that's all before we leave our cul-de-sac.

I'm kidding. He's doing fine. My anxiety has nothing to do with reality. It's a pre-existing condition. I've always been a nervous passenger. Other drivers don't go quickly enough, they don't stop soon enough, and I'm pretty sure they're not paying enough attention. If I'm riding in your car, you'd better pray that the floorboards are solid, because I will be stomping that invisible brake. I can't help myself.

When in a moving vehicle, I prefer to be at the helm. Even on public transportation in unfamiliar cities, I'm always a little itchy about the driver. The airlines are lucky I don't know how to fly.

Giving the steering wheel to another driver causes me the same anxiety as handing over the TV remote control. Only worse, because misuse of the remote control isn't likely to result in death by fiery crash.

For all these reasons, I wasn't the one who taught our son to drive. I half-heartedly volunteered, but that made the rest of the family laugh until beverages spurted out their noses.

My wife taught him. She's patient and considerate and level-headed and calm, all the things I'm not. She's the one who took our son to parking lots and endured the gear-grinding and the whiplash accelerations and the shrieking stops. I stayed at home, watching sports on TV and chewing my fingernails down to the knuckles.

Our son also went through driver's ed in school and attended a six-hour driving course taught by a professional with nerves of steel.

By the time the boy and I started driving together, he already had his learner's permit and many hours of experience.

And he still scares the bejeebers out of me. I ride in the passenger seat, fingers dug into the upholstery, feet dancing, a frozen smile on my face, while we miss other cars by inches or drift too close to the shoulder or stop, stop, I said stop, right now. Whew.

I try not to distract him with too much coaching, try not to criticize unnecessarily, try not to imagine what it will be like to plunge across the median into that oncoming semi.

Just a few constructive comments, I tell myself. Only when absolutely needed. Only when it will help. After all, we're preparing him for the big driving test, the one where he'll get his full license and be allowed to drive all by himself.

I try to picture him driving without me in the car. He'll probably be better off.

(Editor's note: This column ran a few years ago. Our older son now zooms around town in his own car, and our younger son has his learner's permit and is practicing for his final test. My wife tells me he's doing well.)

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