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Grocery Store Driver's Training

I’m the lucky father (depending on the day) of two girls, Grace (12) and Riley (16). Riley was very recently the proud recipient of her driver’s permit. For those of you who might be unfamiliar, having a driver’s permit means my daughter now legally has the right to scare the begonias out of me in my very own vehicle. Suddenly, this teen who did all she could to avoid spending time these last three years with the old man who she used to call “Daddy”, now jumps at any chance to drive me somewhere…anywhere.

“You going to the gas station, Dad? Can I drive?”

“Heading out to the store? I’ll drive you.”

“Looks like you have a severe intestinal virus, Pop. Let me take you to the ER.”

And, now I feel my age catching up with me while I pray that my heart doesn’t give out every time she gets behind the wheel. It always starts off well, nice and calm, but by the end of her drive I’m white-knuckled, my leg is cramped from pushing my imaginary passenger-side brake, and I’m losing my voice from screaming, “Slower!”, “Biker on your right!”, “Stay to your left!” and “The brake is the other one!”

Looking back, I should have taken Riley shopping with me more often when she was younger. I’m sure I’d be far less stressed today if I had. I believe kids who spend time in grocery stores, become better drivers.

I’ve been taking Grace, my twelve-year old, on my weekly grocery shopping trips lately. I’ve been showing her how to find the best cantaloupe (tap it…should hear a thud, not a hollow sound), how to maximize sales with coupons, and to look for the best deals based on price per unit.

This week, I gave my daughter the shopping list and the cart and had her go at it alone for two aisles. No help from me, and suddenly I found myself talking to her the way I talk to her sister while she’s behind the wheel of my minivan: “Stay to your right,” Watch out for that oncoming cart,” and “You need to stop fully before you pull completely out of the aisle.” (So much for “no help from me.)

That’s when it hit me: the grocery store is the best place for pre-permit driver’s training. By the time Grace is her sister’s age, she’ll be good enough on the road that the few brown hairs I’ll have remaining on my melon will not go gray because of her.

If you have a tween, take him/her/it to the grocery store, and let me show you how to maximize the experience in order to eventually have teens behind the wheel who won’t give you coronaries.

1. Lanes Put you child behind the cart and have him push it up and down the aisles. The beauty he’ll notice right away is that everyone follows the same rule: “Stay to the right,” just like drivers do on the roads (Disclaimer: this does not hold true for Great Britain and at Six Flags bumper car rides). Pretty soon, your little shopper will fall into line and when he gets behind the wheel in a few years, staying to the right will be second nature, just like cruising in the cereal section.

2. Multi-Tasking The experts tell us that when driving we are not supposed to multi-task, but that’s precisely what driving is. Give your shopper the grocery list and tell her to head down an aisle and find items on the list. She’ll have to look at aisle signs, products on the shelves, prices, as well as look out for carts (vehicles) and shoppers (pedestrians) all while operating her own vehicle. It’s practice for when she’ll have to look for a house or an address while being aware of signs and traffic lights while avoiding oncoming cars, cats and balls that jet across her path.

3. Steering My biggest surprise when I let Riley behind the wheel for the first time was that she steered our van like she was one of those wind-up toy monkeys playing the drums. She couldn’t steer the thing. I’m thinking, “How do you not know how to steer?” But, she explained that although it looks simple from the back seat, what with the pedals and signaling and mirrors, keeping her mind on what should have been the easiest part of driving was a challenge. When I put her little sister behind the shopping cart, she learned that maneuvering it with a hundred pounds of food and paper products wasn’t as easy as it looked. With practice she’ll get it. Then, when she transfers those skills to her first car, the transition will be much smoother than that of her sister.

4. Parallel Parking I can’t stand it when I’m shopping and someone leaves their cart in the middle of the aisle while they pull a tube of Colgate from the shelves. With such narrow aisles, if you’re going to leave your cart, it’s integral you pull up and park it right alongside the shelves, in essence, parallel parking. This week Grace had trouble with this. It’s not as easy as it looks. Her first attempt left the tail end of the cart sticking out. Like a car I showed her how to back it into her spot and pull-up straight.

5. Read Faces As I tell my teen driver, you can’t assume that other drivers know what they’re doing. You have to drive defensively. That’s why it’s crucial you look at another driver’s face if you can. See what their intentions are in their eyes. Are they looking at their phone? Do they see you? Are they planning to turn? Same holds true in the grocery store. This week I pointed out to Grace the importance of looking at other shoppers. Do they see you? Are they looking at the shelves? Are they stopping their carts or continuing down the aisle? When you know what other shoppers intentions are, you can make appropriate in-store decisions that won’t result in a “Clean up in aisle five.”

6. Intersections Pulling out of an aisle is great practice for entering an intersection that is devoid of stop signs. Who has the right of way? How fast do you move? What if someone else is coming and doesn’t stop? In the grocery store, as on the roads, you need to be cautious. Grace learned you must stop your cart, inch it out and peek into the intersection, looking both ways before proceeding. Funny thing is, as in driving, turning right back into an aisle (from the intersection) takes just as much caution, because not everyone is pushing their carts safely.

Giving my girl practice in the store is going to pay off for her (and for me) in a few years. I’d rather have her make her mistakes in the produce section than on a highway.

Just yesterday there was a guy on the road behind my teen with the family in the car, flipping us all the bird because she was a bit indecisive at an intersection…stressed her out a bit. That kind of stuff never happens in the frozen food aisle.

So, get your kids shopping at the store with you today. We can put their faces on our club cards. Just don’t have your kid eat a bunch of candy before they push a cart. Store patrol might be roaming the aisles and revoke your kid’s club card for DUIS (Driving Under the Influence of Sugar).

America’s Relationship Guru

Leon Scott Baxter, “America’s Relationship Guru,” is the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting and the founder of SafetyNetters.com. He’s the father of two girls, 12 and 16, and has taught elementary school for eighteen years.