For the past several years, I’ve strongly recommended that parents stop using tracking devices for kids on their phones with apps like Life 360 and mSpy. And I’ve been urging them to let go of the constant checking and notifications they receive from school-based portals like Power School and Aspen.
Parents wave me off, insisting they feel better and their days runs smoother when they know exactly where their children are and can step in whenever they see a potential problem. They want to know their fifth grader is safe because— while he’s old enough to be home alone or walk from school—he’s not old enough to be really safe.
And when the fifth grader grows into a teen, the monitoring continues because, well, he’s a teen and spending time with other teens. Teens have bad judgement. They’re easily influenced. They miss assignments, and their grades suffer. It’s dangerous out there.
With such risks to avoid and obligations to meet, it’s easier— they tell me—to get in front of issues. No harm, no foul.
But is there actually no harm? No foul?
My experience with families says otherwise.
I consistently warn parents that once they start tracking their kids, they won’t stop.
And now a survey conducted by The New York Times and Morning Consult backs me up.
Parents who start tracking, interfering, and micromanaging their children when they are young will continue their habits when their children become young adults.
The consequences of such interference are dramatic for children.
They reach the age of young adulthood with underdeveloped skills. Second, powerful messages delivered from parent to child reinforce destructive ways of thinking.
The decision to track can inadvertently convey such longer-term messages that—although unintentional—are hard to undo in the way your children view the world and themselves.
I observe four common justifications parents use to start tracking that are appealing in the short term. Do any of these sound familiar?
4 Reasons you interfere and track your child to help that actually hurt
1. There’s no room for error.
Over-packed schedules require adult efficiency to keep up. You believe you must stay ahead of your children’s bumbles and mistakes, because it’s critical for your own tightly-scheduled lives that the trains of the family stay on track.
I hear busy parents claim they don’t have time to micromanage their kids’ lives, but interestingly, I often notice that busy parents tend to do it more.
When time is sparse, there’s no room to walk the curvy, inefficient path of childhood. (I remember watching how LONG it took my toddler to put his socks on!) And adolescent tumult is hardly quick and smooth.
Parents step in to keep things streamlined, logistically and emotionally. “It just makes me feel better and we have less hassles,” parents often say. “I need to know things are taken care of.”
“I do not have time for your ups and downs, your messes, and mistakes. I already know how to get this done and I’ll do a better job.”
2. You worry that your children can’t handle the demands of daily life.
You are stepping in, you believe, because you have to.
“I can’t trust her to be where she’s supposed to be, and I can’t tolerate her distress when she messes up,” parents say.
One mom told me that her son was never able to get up on his own in high school and missed the bus 80% of the time throughout his childhood.
She was paying a lot of money for this college education so now was not the time to let him miss class. She knew his chemistry lab started at 8:00, and when she didn’t see him moving across campus at 8:15, she had to step in.
What if he fails? She couldn’t stand the thought of such a painful consequence.
“You are too incompetent and fragile to manage on your own. I know you don’t have the skills or resiliency to manage, and so I’ll protect you.”
3. You parent from a place of fear.
You imagine what bad things might happen to your child and work to prevent it. Did my daughter walk home safely from school? Whose house is my son at right now? Is my daughter in her dorm room?
Research shows that anxious parents express their fears to their children more than non-anxious parents, and that children raised by worried parents perceive the world as a more dangerous place and project danger onto ambiguous situations.
I’ve had many discussions with anxious parents who see this as a good thing. However, fear can invite avoidance. The inability to see reasonable risk only supports the anxious and depressing world view that is now epidemic in teens and young adults.
“The world is a dangerous place. I need to know where you are, because bad things happen. I’m afraid for you, and you should be afraid, too.”
4. You want to know all you can about your kids all the time.
While some parents want to make sure that their child is on time, safe, current on homework, or in bed, others just get so used to knowing exactly what their child is doing that it becomes hard not to know. It simply becomes a habit.
Our smartphones and social media have taught us that’s there no reason to tolerate uncertainty. All we want to know is at our fingertips. If you can know what your child is up to every moment, why deprive yourself?
This lack of autonomy inhibits independent problem solving, whether the challenge is fraught or seemingly frivolous.
“I can know everything about you all the time. We don’t need privacy! You don’t need to be mindful of what you need to do because I will tell you.”
No matter what the reason, the solution is as simple as it is unwelcome.
And in place of the tracking, checking, and stepping in, look for opportunities to teach the skills that build emotionally strong kids.
Not kids that feel “happy and successful” all the time, but kids (and young adults) that know how to problem solve, to ask for help when needed.
Let them feel horribly hurt and disappointed. Tell them they’ll get through it. Kids that can tolerate screwing up— with your love and support— will figure out how to do better the next time.
A Better Parenting Strategy
The goal is to give your child some different messages about them, you, and the world.
Instead of transmitting, “You are fragile and incompetent so I need to step in for you,” find ways to convey “You are learning and growing, as we all are. Experience is a good teacher you will learn from it, even when it’s hard and uncertain. For both of us.”
And start early with a focus on skill building that moves toward autonomy. Waiting until the stakes are high as they are heading off into the world is bad planning and induces panic for adult and child.
And— may I say again— this is why you should NOT start tracking in the first place.
Finally, when you stop tracking and break up with that trusty app, you teach your child to COMMUNICATE.
Have their plans changed? Are they going to arrive later than expected from the swim meet? Can they be a little late for curfew?
Or maybe they need to talk to a teacher about a missed homework assignment and learn to take care of it on their own…before you even find out.
Count that as a parenting success.