Five Good Reasons to Hand Your Car Keys Over to Your Toddler

July 10, 2011 · 9 comments

in Daily Life, Development

Have you ever had an  idea come to you out of  the blue; an idea so obvious and simple, that you can’t believe no one has thought of it before? An idea you can’t wait to share with anyone who will listen, because you just know it will change the world for the better, and if not that, at least it can’t do much harm? Well I had one of those flashes today, and I am just itching to share, so here goes: I think this just may be the next “big thing” in parenting and educating babies and toddlers, the piece that has been missing and without  which our babies and toddlers aren’t faring nearly as well as they might. Are you ready to hear what this missing piece is? It is simply this: We should be encouraging and teaching our babies to drive as soon as they are sitting up on their own. Just think about it for a minute before you dismiss my idea out of hand. Here are five good reasons to begin drivers education before your child is even out of diapers.

The Young and The Reckless
1) First of all, driving is a complex skill that most people will need to learn in order to survive and thrive in our industrialized, highly mobile society. So it makes sense to introduce your child to the basics early. You want her to grow familiar and comfortable with this tool she will be using for the rest of her life. The earlier you introduce her,  the better. Of course, you aren’t going to just hand the keys over and leave her to her own devices; you’ve got to take it slow in the beginning. At first, you must always be present to supervise, guide, and interact. You can begin by just allowing your baby to sit in the driver’s seat, and let him practice playing with all of  the various knobs and buttons so he can see what they can do. (I  am, of course, writing a book, available soon on the e-reader of your choice, suitable  for use by parents and educators. It will be full of suggested guidelines, lesson plans, extended learning opportunities, books and games, and so much more, all intended to help you make the most of this overlooked but wonderful learning tool  that you no doubt have sitting in your driveway at this very moment.)

2) Which brings me to my second point: Cars are the ideal, interactive teaching and entertainment tools for young toddlers. Have you ever known a baby who doesn’t love to sit behind the wheel of a car,  honk the horn, fiddle with the radio controls, turn the wipers on and off, shift the gears, and so on? Toddlers learn through hands on interaction with objects in their environment, and they are thrilled when their actions cause things to happen. What better way to provide hours of interactive learning (disguised as play) for your little one? Also, to date, your baby has been a passive on-looker, as she’s been strapped in a car seat in the back, and has had nothing to do but bide her time, and stare out at the scenery during long car rides. By moving her to the front seat, and letting her get her hands on all of these wonderfully responsive knobs and buttons, you are moving her into the realm of an active participant in her own learning.

3) Think about this too: As your child grows, and her interests and skills grow, so does the number and variety of activities she can do, using the car. She can learn to put the keys in the ignition, and turn over the engine,  and as soon as she can reach the gas pedals and brake, she can actually take the car out for a spin. Steering, navigating, map skills,  plotting a course, reading road signs, following the rules of the road, oh gosh- the possibilities for expanded learning are just endless. She may even become interested in car care, and maintenance and learn to understand the workings of an engine. Some children will even be designing their own prototypes by the time they’re in elementary school.

4) Again, with so many learning opportunities, doesn’t it just make sense to introduce the car early? It seems to me the earlier we start teaching our babies how to operate and care for a car, the better chance they will have at becoming proficient drivers at a much earlier age. And just think about how this might benefit you as a parent. No more endless hours spent in the car, ferrying children back and forth to school, to doctor appointments, lessons, playdates – what have you.  By the time they’re about ten years old, children should be able to manage mostly on their own, and even arrange their own carpools. You can finally take a well deserved break, and they can feel the satisfaction of being able to get themselves to and from where they want to go- it will literally open up new worlds for them, at a much younger age than previously.

5) Finally, it’s time that we as a society stop underestimating our children, and what they are capable of. If we treat them like babies, incapable of  understanding and mastering complex tasks, they will continue to act like babies. Times change, and the way we teach our children has to change with the times. Children will still have plenty of time to run around outside, and generally act like children, as long as we remember that we are the ones in control of the keys, and we limit the time we allow them to spend in the car playing and practicing their driving skills.  But, if we are going to show our toddlers that we have any respect for them, that we believe in them and their capabilities, we’ve got to start giving them access to opportunities and tools that will  stretch their horizons, at an early age. We don’t want them falling behind, do we? Besides, who needs toys when you can just hand your baby the keys to the car and make him happy for hours?

Now, I can imagine that there may be a few of you out there who are still unconvinced. Innovative ideas are always met with some skepticism and resistance at first, but I’m sure that this one is a winner. I’d love to have the opportunity to be the first to hear and reply to your concerns and questions. I have no doubt I can help to allay any fears or misgivings you may have, so please, comment freely and honestly.

Talking to Grandparents
(Now that I’ve convinced you all that I’ve gone completely nuts, go back and re-read this post, inserting the word “computer” wherever I’ve written car or driving. I wrote this post tongue firmly in cheek, after reading a tweet by Lisa Belkin,  “Remember when toddlers used to be transfixed by your car keys? Ipad apps for Toddlers????”  I thought, “Toddlers are better off with the car keys…”  Most parents and early childhood educators would never think of handing a toddler the car keys, leading  him to the car and saying “OK, here you go, have at it”,  yet we might not think twice about handing a baby an iPhone or an iPad,  for entertainment or learning purposes.  There are marketers (no surprise), and there are  even some early childhood professionals who advocate for the use of  screen technology with our youngest children, but I can’t get behind this agenda. For a thoughtful exploration and discussion of the topic, you might want to look at this post at Childhood 101 , Why I don’t want to share my lap top (with my children.  Additionally, this post , entitled the Mind/Body Problem, written by Susan Lin, of  Commercial Free Childhood makes a compelling argument for why we should all be advocating for limits on screen time for young children. Susan’s post was written in response to NAEYC’s  (National Association For The Education of Young Children) proposed technology position statement, which is being updated this year, and is meant to guide early childhood educators in the use of technology in early childhood classrooms. Technology is here to stay. Computers are wonderful tools- for adults. Children can and will learn to use computers, just as they learn to drive cars, and they won’t be missing out on anything by waiting until they are developmentally ready. I don’t believe they are ready until they are well out of their toddler years. In my opinion, children younger than say, the age of eight, have more to lose by engaging with screens,  than they stand to gain. What are your thoughts?)

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Gina Osher July 10, 2011

It’s so funny that you wrote this, Lisa. I just finished reading an intense post from Teacher Tom on what happens to your brain & body after more than 30 minutes of TV. He makes the point that after 30 minutes your brain goes into a stupor & that your brain & body can’t distinguish this stupor from opiates! I don’t know if computer screen time is exactly the same as TV screen time, but it strikes me as too close for comfort.

We kept TV & computers away from our kids entirely before the age of 3. Now they are 4 1/2 & do watch some TV (but after reading Tom’s post I am going to limit it more than I have) and I let them occasionally play with my computer etc. I’m quite careful about what they do on my phone/iPad, & never let them do it for more than 15/20 minutes. But I do admit that when I do it, it is often to get some peace or have a minute to myself. Thank you for the reminder that there are better ways to get those free minutes.

I’m curious to hear what you & your readers have to say about computers in schools because almost every elementary school we have looked at starts the kids on computers in Kindergarten.
Great post!

Gill Connell July 11, 2011

This is why you are always one of my “must reads,” Lisa! Bravo! Just, Bravo!

Deborah Stambler July 11, 2011

I was hoping I’d get some practical tips for dealing with a 15 year old who can’t wait to get her hands on the car keys! Great piece. The conceit really held up all the way through. I like it. I also happen to agree with this position. As a parent educator and mother of two 12+ girls, we’ve been slowly reeling out computer use over the years. Want an email account? Sure, just learn to type the proper way and we can talk about it. Every email my girls receive comes to me as well. We also use other parental controls.

As far as elementary schools who don’t use computers in the classroom, check out Waldorf schools.

Thanks for this piece. Nice work.

Lisa | July 30, 2011

Hi Lisa,

I actually disagree with you on this one. I believe that, when used correctly, technology like the iPad can be quite beneficial. I started to write a response as a comment to you – but it grew so much, I ended up turning it into a full-blown post:

Cindie Cook October 11, 2011

I get it and you are so right, but I have to tell you about a 3 year old I watch every week. He received one of those electric cars for his 3rd birthday. He is the best driver I’ve ever seen! He can parallel park, he knows how to back up, go forward, turn the wheel, back up and out of any tight spot and I have been watching him thinking about the inexperienced drivers getting their REAL license who can’t do what this little boy has been taught to do at an age where he was really interested in learning it. So maybe we should teach toddlers to drive. (I seriously do understand the article and meaning, but it made me think of his driving skills and what a fabulous driver he is already, so will be when actually old enough to drive, so I had to substitute computers for car keys before it was even suggested! : )

Dreamy April 30, 2012

Apologies in advance for the novel, but I am really torn on this one. Because, honestly? Although the tone gave away the satirical nature of this piece within a paragraph or two (and I figured you were getting at computers), a good chunk of it truly sounded like “RIE”-style parenting advice. You know– kids are born with a certain degree of independence that we should respect and nurture, we should let kids explore their environments (though obviously a car is nearly the opposite of a kid-safe space, I’d theoretically have no problem sitting with my very young child and letting them fiddle with the radio, etc.), you might be surprised at what kids can figure out on their own via discovery, build their confidence– perhaps not via “many lesson plans available on e-readers”– but by just exploring… etc., etc.

Although I’m very attracted to RIE and continue to believe strongly in its usefulness, I find interpretations of it contradictory at times. That is, I’m sure you would say there are some obvious reasons that the above would be a uniformly terrible idea (whether for cars or computers– but honestly, the basic physical safety/motor coordination issue does make the two technologies DIFFERENT, if not better or worse). But the thing is, the differences are not that obvious, all the time, and sometimes– and I really like RIE!– it seems like they are a bit arbitrary, or based in one woman’s (perhaps in some ways, inductive?) philosophy, vs. something more clear and evidence-based. Not that everything (or anything) is 100% internally consistent or broadly, double-blindedly evidence-based, but hopefully you see my internal conflict with this.

Sometimes I wonder, too, why it’s okay in RIE philosophy to put one’s baby on the floor to explore, etc., while one is nearby but not directly engaged, so as to allow independent learning (i.e., you don’t have to be “fully present” and “attached” to your baby 24/7– and especially don’t have to/shouldn’t “entertain” your baby all the time)… Which makes complete sense to me… But on the other hand, when breastfeeding, you should be looking into your child’s eyes, etc… (just one example of many). I can understand that there are times for being fully engaged and times that that is not necessary (even harmful, in a way), but it’s honestly not intuitive to me– and I’m not sure there’s a “complete” logic to it in general, to be honest– when those times are and aren’t.

Does any of the above make sense? In this example, I am still really unclear about why all screens just supposedly “do random things” that “don’t make sense” to a baby, in response to their input-stimuli. I’m not sure that’s the case, especially WRT iPads and other intuitive models of “screen.” Not that I think it’s so “crucial” to constantly be exposing our kids to computers, etc., but I do think that some supervised time, that allows for discussion, etc. (especially as the child gets older) is neither entirely useless nor harmful. I’m not sure it’s absolutely “necessary,” as intuitive interfaces are easy enough to pick up on after age 3, too, but you can see I don’t find this subject so cut and dried, just as I felt very conflicted about your “Wordless Wednesday” with the baby and the “broken iPad” magazine. Realizing that buttons or touch screens make things happen isn’t an entirely useless discovery IMO, and figuring out the nuances comes later, just like trying to put a ball in a cup comes before figuring out that only the small ball will fit in the small cup, or into the round hole (not the triangular one) or whatever. Furthermore, sometimes when older people say, “It’s so pathetic that [insert generation] can’t seem to survive without their [insert technology]” and start rending their garments (not saying this is you or RIE, but cliche since at least the industrial revolution…) It’s like, well, they probably won’t have to? There is absolute good (for brain development, etc.) in the “basics”– the fundamentals– but for example, my grandmother doesn’t know how I survive without knowing how to make my own clothes without a pattern. And I get on my own high horse about kids who don’t know how to spell without spell-check (which can only do so much– their/there/they’re)… But maybe they don’t need to? Or don’t “really” need to? I mean, I’m an excellent speller and I understand the farther-reaching benefits and nuances of being a “good speller,” but I’m not 100% sold on the idea that every generation is really getting “dumber” than the next, simply because they’ve taken shortcuts. I’m of two minds, but I do see that skipping some steps is not always a bad thing– after all, better (and I mean truly for the betterment of society) technology, scientific/medical advances, etc. are built on previous discoveries, with no need to “reinvent the wheel,” as long as you know the wheel works. Now, simply “knowing the wheel works” isn’t necessarily enough to foster creative discovery– so that’s why I’m of two minds… But hopefully you see what I’m getting at here. I mean, if this were 1860 instead of 2012, I could see RIE educators clucking their tongues at a kid reading a magazine (with photos of real objects) rather than looking at creative, open-ended drawings, or, better yet, out the window. Not to make an extreme slippery slope argument, but I’m not sure an iPad is *so* much worse than a magazine than a magazine is worse than a field of grass…

In any event, I’m really interested in discussing these seemingly conflicting ideas in RIE, so please do let me know if you have any resources, etc., that will help clear them up, or even just give me more food for thought! 🙂

Lisa May 1, 2012


Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I totally understand your question, or perhaps there are many of them? I’d suggest looking at the following web sites to learn more about RIE philosophy: Magda Gerber- Seeing Babies With New Eyes, Resources For Infant Educarers, and Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare. There are also a number of books available for sale on the RIE web site that delve more deeply into the philosophy and its underpinnings.

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