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Parents and teen drivers: Practicing what you preach

Gina Roberts-Grey

Parents know the drill. Before handing over the car keys, you remind your kids to buckle up, to never text and drive and to honor the speed limit — safety measures that, in most states, happen to be the law of the land, as well as the law of Mom and Dad.

Yet parents occasionally forget that those rules pertain to them too. The “don’t drive as I do, drive as I say” approach is ineffective when trying to instill good driving habits in teen drivers, psychologists say.

“Parents don’t realize they’re setting examples as well as rules,” Dallas child psychologist Nicole Caldwell says.

So how can parents ensure they’re raising safe drivers? Here are some tips for setting a good example behind the wheel.

Avoid double standards

If you’re not following the rules you set, you have to figure out why you’re saying one thing and doing another before you can correct the behavior, says Susan Newman, a parenting author and social psychologist in New York City.

The reason is likely quite simple — you forget the rules apply to you.

“My daughter has caught me talking without a Bluetooth several times,” says Diana Derby, a mother from Crystal Lake, Ill. “And every time (the call) is work-related, or I just need to make a quick call. It’s not because I don’t want to follow the rules.”

As a parent, your goal is to avoid double standards. Driving experience and the number of miles you’ve logged aren’t excuses to follow a different set of rules than the rules you give your children.

“You need to demonstrate your awareness that the same rules apply to you — even if you’ve been behind the wheel for longer than your child has been alive,” Newman says. Otherwise, your children may not take your message seriously.

Acknowledging errors, learning together

Newman says parents should acknowledge when they make mistakes behind the wheel instead of sweeping them under the floor mat. She suggests enlisting your child’s help to break bad driving habits.

“It’s tough to break the habit of grabbing your BlackBerry to fire off a quick email or text, even if it’s while you’re stuck in traffic or sitting at a stoplight,” Newman says. “But it’s that example, not the rules you preach, that will form your child’s driving habits.”

Newman suggests that parents make a pact with their children to hold each other accountable. Include realistic “punishments” or consequences if either party makes an infraction. For instance, if you talk on the phone without using a hands-free device, you must complete a chore for your child.

“Stick to it,” Caldwell recommends. Doing otherwise only creates another double standard.

Newman adds that pulling the “parent card” and saying “I can do this because I’m the parent” defeats the lesson at hand. Acknowledge that your child is right to point out your errors, “and explain that everyone makes mistakes and you’ll strive to drive more safely,” she says.

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