Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.
Spying is such a harsh term, don’t you think? I prefer to view the many GPS tracking devices and location apps on my son’s phone as simply the parenting tools that have proved worthy as we trudge through his teenage years. Thanks to these digital tools, I am able to know where he is, where he’s been, how long he stayed and how fast he drove to get there. I can also tell whether he texted while driving and how many times he slammed on the brakes. He is 17.
I can tell where he goes not just in real life, but also where he goes online. I follow his digital footsteps and know all about decoy apps and the chat rooms I don’t want him visiting. I can monitor his digital life and see if he is posting anything inappropriate that could come back to haunt him down the road, and I can quickly shut it down. I’m on top of apps that are frequented by bullies, and know what happens to kids who get bullied.
I am all over this. And I do it in the name of protecting my son. It isn’t him I don’t trust; it’s the rest of you.
But for years now, my digital tools have provided me with something else too: They’ve given me multiple ways to remind him to get gas so he doesn’t get stranded on the side of the road late at night. They’ve enabled me to double-check that he has his soccer uniform with him, so he can play and not just sit sullenly on the bench. I can follow up whether he spoke to his teacher about the assignment he missed when he was absent and see if he needs me to intervene and email her. I am still just protecting him, right?
OK, I know what you’re thinking: She’s a helicopter mom who has her fingers in every aspect of this poor kid’s life. Why doesn’t she let him take responsibility for himself and if he suffers some consequences for his actions, so be it?
The problem is, most helicopter moms like me don’t know that’s what we are. What you may see as overprotective, we see as involved. We look at parents who are more relaxed about things and privately judge them to be “inattentive” or say they are “putting their kids at risk.”
Me? I may have just seen the light on my helicoptering ways. And of all places, the light came from our toilet.
On Sunday, my son dropped his smartphone in the downstairs commode. As the nice people at the Apple store are fond of saying, iPhones don’t swim. And yes, this one literally circled the drain.
Even before my son fished it out ― and in a last-ditch effort to save it, buried it in a bag of rice ― we knew what the outcome was going to be: He was going to be phoneless for a while, and I was going to have my helicopter rotors clipped. In the back of my mind, I was thinking none of this was necessarily bad.
The truth is, I have a good kid. He doesn’t get in trouble, does reasonably well in school considering how little interest he has in it, and, with the exception of the countless hours he spends playing video games, he is not the kind of kid who really needs to live every waking moment with his mother hovering above.
So, for the first time in many years, yesterday I got no text message at 7:45 a.m. saying he had arrived at school in one piece. I also did not ― could not ― verify his driving speed or route to see if he had stopped for a fast-food breakfast on the way to school. My loss will undoubtedly be Jack in the Box’s gain.
When I found the lunch he made for himself left behind on the kitchen counter, I did not ― could not ― text or call him to figure out what to do about it. I am pretty sure that he will realize he is lunch-less when he gets hungry and probably already knows which friend has the best lunch to share. I have long suspected ― even before his phone took a dive ― that he is a major lunch-swapper who gravitates to the kid who brings a Nutella sandwich every day.
I also can’t text him a reminder to drive slower this afternoon if it rains as predicted. But no, I don’t really believe that a text from me is all that stands between him and a certain accident when drivers in Los Angeles meet wet pavement.
I also can’t check whether he remembered his house key or the fact that I won’t be home today when he gets there. Or that his tutor comes at 5 p.m. and he has to walk the dogs before the tutor arrives. I have but one choice now: Let this all fall to my son.
Yes, of course, I fully expect him to rise to the occasion without his mother there watching how he handles himself every minute. If something bad happens, my resting rotor and I will be here, glued to the landline.
And there is at least one upside for this newly retired helicopter mom: I don’t need to track him online anymore, because without his phone, he pretty much can’t get there.