Why I Let My 11-Year-Old Daughter Drive

Last weekend I taught my eleven-year-old daughter to drive my truck.

I took her to a school parking lot, talked her through it, moved to the passenger seat, and let her loose.

I don’t think anyone saw us (which my daughter was grateful for, as she was mortified when she hit a curb).

But if anyone had, there’s a good chance they would have taken issue with me teaching her so young and deemed me a “reckless parent.”

I don’t know what it is about my generation and the “helicopter parenting” we’ve become known for, but kids today may well be the most over-protected and coddled kids in living memory.

Well, not my kids. Not on my watch.

Our children will be under our care for only so long. We do our kids no favors by babying them, because at some point they have to enter the fray and learn to stand on their own two feet.

Over-protecting them now means under-protecting them in the future. It’s short-sighted. It’s negligent.

Our job as parents is NOT to shield our kids. It’s to give them graduated exposure to the real world, and to create a safe space for them to experience non-lethal doses of failure and difficulty, so they’ll be able to thrive and overcome when they face the real thing.

If we do that well, when our kids leave home they can slipstream into real life without the shock, ballyhoo, and “failure to launch” breakdowns that are all-too-common.

Now I’m not saying we should throw our kids off the deep end to let them sink or swim. Nor should we let them experience the uglier and harder aspects of the real world without filter.

The key here is GRADUATED exposure.

One of the great joys and privileges of fatherhood is discerning age-appropriate exposure.

Discerning your child’s physical, mental and emotional readiness to a particular challenge is a lost art.

It used to be that the elders deemed a youth’s readiness based on how well he or she proved themselves in rites of passage and other shrewdly constructed tests and gauntlets.

Now most parents resort to “at what age should I let my son do X” searches on Google, or putting the question to friends on Facebook, or consulting boilerplate pediatric tables and one-size-fits-all rules of thumb.

It’s far more effective (and satisfying) to rely on deep love and knowledge of your unique child, along with a healthy dose of common sense.

In the case of teaching my daughter to drive, the decision was easy.

My daughter had expressed an interest in driving. She is tall for her age, so reaching the pedals and seeing over the dash would not be a problem. She has sufficient hand-eye coordination and fine motor control as well, as she proved to me last summer by quickly and skillfully mastering the ride-on lawn mower.

I don’t know any other kids who have learned to drive at her age. But she was ready, and I was happy to teach her and help her conquer that milestone. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what’s considered “normal” for her age.

And, as it turns out, it was the highlight of my week and hers.

It was a chance to bond with my daughter, make a shared memory, and ingrain the kind of “can-do” attitude that will help her flourish once she flies the nest.

With ALL my kids, I am intentionally taking every opportunity I can to let them succeed or fail on their own merits.

I am letting them fail small now so they won’t have to fail big later.

Most of all, I’m teaching them to challenge themselves, to stick it out, to pick themselves up off the floor when life knocks them down.

This week, think of something your kids want to do: a critical skill you can teach them, a milestone you can walk them through–even if it scares you. Even if they might fail at it. ESPECIALLY if they might fail at it.

You can’t kid-proof the world.

But, to a much greater extent, you can world-proof your kids.

Turn ’em loose. And enjoy the ride.


  1. Thank You for this post. I learned to drive at age 8 and my daughter has been driving since she was 11 or so. This Graduated Exposure that you talk about is the one thing I have been trying to put my finger on as the main thing that separates me from other parents. All the while I have been feeling guilty about this and only because my natural need to parent this way overshadowed society’s pressure on me to conform – and I perceived this as my own character flaw (I figured I was just a bad parent). I have felt guilty because I can not logically prevent or restrict my children from certain things that other parents would consider negligent. I know for sure this method of sharing experiences based upon what each individual child is ready for, is one of the primary factors in why I have such an extraordinary relationship with all three of my children. I am a 48 year old widowed father of three children, 2 – 12 year old twin boys (one has autism) and a 15 year old girl. My trial by fire introduction to real fatherhood (and motherhood by proxy) came when my wife passed away unexpectedly in her sleep one night about 5 years ago. I have always felt “in the weeds” when it comes to parenting but you have helped me to shed this ghostly guilt I was carrying around because of having completely different methodologies when it comes to giving kids liberties, sharing experiences with them, and allowing them to participate in activities other kids won’t experience till much later in life, if at all. It is easier to blanket-rule everything based on society’s expectations (or Google’s recommendation) instead of truly exploring your child’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses, and then parenting based on those observations and experiences. This is an art, takes up a lot of your time, and not doing it is negligent. So why are you the only other person I have ever heard speak about it? Are there more of us hiding under the cloak of normality? If so, they must let their daughters drive around the Walmart parking lot on a different day. If someone questions these tactics, consider my kids have never been caught lying to me, they and their friends are always around me it seems (by their choice), I know about any school issues before I get a call which is rare, I am frequently referred to as “dad” by all my kids friends, and I always hear “I wish my dad was like your dad he is so cool”. All 3 kids get straight As and Bs and in spite of never once in my entire life seeing my daughter open a school book, she, on her own, was able to skip high school entirely and go from middle school directly to Early College. She filled out the applications and did the essay on her own. All my children’s progress, accomplishments, and our strong relationship was all manifested amidst extreme diversity, pain and bereavement. I only made sure they had support, love, and a father with an open mind. I also never stop challenging them with new and empowering life experiences but keep it customized to each child’s needs, interests, and capabilities. I should mention that I had to be at home for the past 5 years to be able to do this. We are not privileged in any way and in fact I was fired from my $125,000.00 per year job shortly after my wife passed away because of being considered a liability to the company. This ended up being a blessing because Fathering 3 children, one with special needs is a full time job for two people let alone one. A year after leaving work we were broke, lost our rental house and even became homeless. Instead of trying to find another job, I concentrated on the Family and put in little bits of work on the side wherever I could. Slowly we stabilized, got another place to rent, now I work from home full time and everything is fine – we have never been happier. The point here is many people say, I cant leave my blood sucking job because of the financial implications and it would be wrong to put my family at risk that way. But you can leave the job, it is your choice to prioritize in that way if you so wish. The faulty thinking is that staying at your job and having a roof over your head is more important than being there for you kids and I am here to tell you it is not. If you don’t believe me ask your kids if they would rather never see you and live in luxury, or be with you all the time and live in your car. We lived in a cheap hotel for over a year and frankly we often had a great time, got closer to one another, and helped us all to appreciate the things we had all taken for granted prior. We all need to stop fooling ourselves regarding what is really important in life as it is way too short to go on for decades thinking what you are doing is going to be rewarding in the end when it probably is not going to be. You think your kid needs $200 Nike shoes so they fit in at school but the truth is they don’t. The shoes you buy are just a crutch for your kid to overcome the deficit in personality strength which is directly related to your method of upbringing. I finally was able to afford a pair of Jordans for my daughter so she could wear them to her College Classes, she deserved a nice pair of shoes for once I said to myself. She came home one day shortly after I had bought them for her with a beat up pair of sperry’s on her feet. When I asked her where were her new shoes she said she gave them to a new girl at school who was having trouble fitting in. She told me “it’s just for a while dad, until she is settled in and her mom can get her some new things. I really don’t care what kind of shoes I wear on my feet if I can help her out. I have been there dad, and it’s really hard to be new, not know anyone, and have crumby shoes too.” Moments like this are so jolting to my emotional state and in a good way. I am grateful. Again my daughter is 14 years old, lost her mom recently, and has somewhat of an idiot for a Father. Not bad results I say, and above average from what I hear from other parents these days.

  2. I am a big supporter of this way of thinking. I have pushed the envelope with driving since he was around 4. We have the luxury of living in the country and have some “field roads”. So very early in would pop him up in front of the wheel on my lap and let him steer. And my daughter has started this at the age of 3. My son went from steering my truck to a powerwheels, to a small atv, to a 30mph go-cart before his 6th birthday. My son is 7 now and our latest endeavor is cooking.

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