Big Mother

A wave of new technology now lets you oversee your kids’ ­every move. Which raises the question: Do you really want to oversee your kids’ every move?

The constant monitoring of our kids raises some disturbing questions about the parents we’ve become, and what we’re willing to do to our kids in the name of keeping them safe. “We are now furiously improvising our way through a situation for which there is no script,” said Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, in a TED talk last year about the current state of parenting. The level of control we crave is a sign of what she describes as a “collective panic” over what it means to be a parent right now. “Whether we think they aren’t being honest with us, or maybe because we don’t trust them to make decisions on their own, it doesn’t matter,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Chestnut Hill clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. “The bottom line is, when we’re watching their every move, we’re basically sending some of the people most important in our lives the message that we don’t trust them.” And if we don’t, who will?

You and I learned, sometimes painfully, that bad decisions had consequences—raiding Dad’s liquor cabinet, forgetting to check how late the trains run before going out, or driving on empty, and the million other screwups we all committed on the way to growing up—and they taught us the hard way (hopefully without too much suffering) about how to ferret out a good idea from a bad one.

Becoming a grownup didn’t require that our parents watched us as if we were felons. But now it seems to be de rigueur. And we’re only beginning to understand the consequences of what that might mean for a new generation of drone-parented children: New studies are beginning to pile up, showing that monitoring kids is having the opposite of its desired effect. For starters, there’s the report released this past March by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which looked at kids ages seven to 12 and reported that overparented tykes tended to be more narcissistic and have a bigger sense of entitlement. Then there’s the much-buzzed-about study out of Queensland University of Technology, surveying 128 guidance counselors, teachers, and school psychologists. Its conclusion? That children who are coddled—defined as kids whose parents habitually rushed to stop or solve their problems—are now less mature and have less courage than other students. Another study, published last July at Fresno State, showed that among 450 students, the ones whose parents showed typical helicopter behavior were more dependent on others, less confident in themselves, and less responsible than their peers.

And all of that was before the recent trend of apps that turn helicopter parents into drone parents. There’s yet to be a definitive, scientific study that explores cognitive development in the age of offspring-monitoring apps. But even for those of us outside of academia, it isn’t so tough to connect the dots: We learn independence from experience, and the reign of Big Mother suggests that we’re pushing our kids into an even more extended period of dependent adolescence. Back at the dawn of developmental theory, in the 1920s, Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget wrote To Understand Is to Invent, defining how children learned after years of arduous study. “To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery,” he wrote. “And such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition.” In other words, parents’ instructions to their kids may be all well and good, but kids only figure out how to learn, think, and relate to the world through firsthand experiences.

So what, then, about kids who are used to being constantly surveilled? How do they learn to make decisions for themselves and develop coping skills? When West Medford mom Christine Koh, editor of the parenting website Boston Mamas, loaned her fifth-grade daughter a phone for a school bus ride one day, she received a frantic call a few hours later, with yelling in the background. “It was so loud at first I thought she was being abducted,” recalls Koh, who was eventually able to figure out that the driver had taken a wrong turn and all the kids on the bus were panicking. “I told her to hang up the phone and let the grownup figure it out. She did. And you know what? They did figure it out. The whole thing freaked me out for nothing.”

She adds with a sigh, “It almost would have been better if she hadn’t had the phone, because I don’t want all that kind of potential false-alarm data interrupting and wreaking havoc on my day when it just isn’t necessary.”

After her encounter with her hapless fifth grader who was not being abducted, Koh, for one, is questioning the whole Big Mother parenting strategy. “I really believe that kids need the chance to problem solve, and they need space for safe experimentation,” she says. By drone-parenting our kids, are we turning them into drones? “I know the motivation for parental hovering comes from good intentions, but life is full of disappointments. And we’re doing our kids a disservice if we don’t let them experience any of them because we’re rescuing them at every turn. I mean, how are they going to survive disappointments later, when they finally go to college?”

So I ask one of the guys at that Wellesley cocktail party, Waltham-based venture capitalist David William Baum: Doesn’t every kid deserve to get into trouble at least once so that they’re forced to deal head-on with the guilt if they got away with it, or punishment if they didn’t? “Sure,” he agrees. “Once is one thing. But what if it were to happen again?”


Kids desire—and require—privacy. Just ask Kristy, a Shrewsbury mother of eight whose name has been changed for this story. She says she struggled with where to draw the line on tracking her kids, until her kids made the decision for her.

Keeping tabs on her brood is no small task—she and her husband both work full time—so she’s given each of her teens a phone (she needs not one, but two family plans to cover the lot of them). But when she sent a text asking them to allow her to track their whereabouts on their respective mobiles, every single one of her kids declined her request.

Her 14-year-old son explains why: “I’m okay texting with her back and forth to let her know where I am and what I’m doing and stuff,” he says, “but having her GPSing me would feel like she didn’t trust me. I should be able to just hang out with my friends, and if she was looking at where I was all the time I’d never be able to relax.”

“I wouldn’t want to be tracked as a grownup,” Kristy admits. “As an adult, I know I’m getting looked at by Google and don’t like the way it feels, and I know my kids don’t.” When Kristy’s kids vetoed her tracking requests, she chose to give them the benefit of the doubt, and backed off. “Kids aren’t perfect and neither are we…and if we overparent, then kids don’t even have a chance to screw up before we’re jumping all over them,” she says.

But that was months ago. These days Kristy’s been rethinking that policy with one of her kids, a high schooler whom she’s having a particularly hard time trusting. And it’s less because she requires pitch-perfect behavior than because she’s afraid this child might do something that causes permanent harm.

“These are years when they have no sense of fear,” she explains. “Those can be dangerous, when they can do real damage to themselves if they’re not making good decisions. I don’t care if they have a couple of beers, or if they were to try pot, but I do care about things that are very possibly going to affect their long-term future…. I know what’s out there,” she says. “Maybe it’s out-of-control drug use or crazy parties, or drinking and driving or getting mixed up with predatory adults and everything in between.” Those are the things that keep her up at night. Not speeding tickets or whether they made it to football practice on time. “Once it gets to that level, it all scares the hell out of me,” she says.


That’s the allure, isn’t it? It’s often fear that drives us to embrace these new technologies—and not just the fear of something going wrong. Although the human race has clearly managed to survive without constant surveillance up to now, we’re more scared than ever of what could happen to our children as they inch away from the nest. But there’s a latent solipsism, too: We’re afraid of what happens to us if something happens to them. “The problem I have with these apps is that they operate on the basic premise that kids just aren’t safe, and they play on parents’ fear,” Steiner-Adair says. “They’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t know where my child is every moment, I must be messing up as a parent. Or the kids must be doing something they’re not supposed to be.’ But a big part of being a parent is that no news is good news. You have to trust that your child can have a sleepover or take the bus.”

And all that fear gets projected right back onto the very darlings we’re trying to protect, creating an increasingly anxious generation. “We’ve gone from being just helicopter parents to being drones, always hovering directly over kids,” Steiner-Adair says. “We’re seeing a lot of anxiety in kids today. This is the most videoed, followed, judged, photographed generation of children, ever. That kind of hypervigilance creates an immense amount of pressure on them. So yes, there are benefits,” she says. “But what are the losses?”

Maybe we’re making them as scared as we are because, as parents, we’re more codependent than ever. My generation has put so much stock into raising children that we can’t handle the idea that our kids won’t need us every second of the day. “A lot of this is about grownups having trouble letting kids go,” observes child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who lectures at Harvard and directs its Human Development and Psychology Program. “We have these few incredible years with them when they’re younger, and then they get older and start separating, and that creates an ego injury to parents. But it’s incredibly important to ask ourselves, How much of that is about my kids’ well-being versus my own need for closeness?”

Will there be even more troubling consequences of creating a generation comfortable with being closely monitored? When these kids grow up, Big Mother will hand them off to Big Brother, with benevolent-but-occasionally-pesky Mom becoming benevolent-but-occasionally-pesky government. Most of us aren’t concerned about sharing our data: When Edward Snowden revealed how deeply we were being monitored by the NSA, most of my peers just shrugged their shoulders, saying, I’m not doing anything wrong, so what do I care? Okay, I get that. But what happens to my darlings if the rules change, and all along they’ve been compliant enough to help create their own dystopia? Does that sound paranoid? Maybe. But hey, 10 years ago, so did planting a chip on your kids to track their every move.


The line between dedication and obsessive parenting is an ever-moving target. Over-supervise your kids’ behavior, and they never learn to take care of themselves or each other. Look the other way, and they could get into a ton of trouble. Getting the balance right means being in a state of constant experimentation. Anyone who requires perfect behavior in a family clearly hasn’t learned much about what being part of one actually means.

One reason we definitely shouldn’t be using all these tracking apps: just because we can. As Ron Remy points out, we now have the technology to do it at our fingertips.

If every family is different, we have to ask ourselves in that epic experiment called parenting whether it’s what our own kids really need. And we should also ask if it’s what we parents need, too. If we don’t have a road map telling us exactly what kinds of moms and dads to be? Big deal. Neither do our kids. “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do,” Piaget said back in the ’20s. Winging it was once our only option; it’s now simply one option among many. But it may just be the best choice. One of the toughest jobs we’ll ever have as parents is learning how to keep our children safe. But even tougher is learning how—and when—to let go.

In the dining room at the cocktail party, the conversation swirled on, with several new guests chiming in. One parent smirked and then gestured up toward the heavens. “What’s that saying?” he offered. “Something like, ‘Being a parent is the only job where, if you’re good enough at it, you eventually put yourself out of a job.’”

Self-imposed obsolescence may not be much of a party joke, but the life-flashing-before-my-eyes reality of it made me half-laugh, half-choke. I wanted to keep that whole Mom-putting-herself-out-of-a-job discussion on ice, as something to talk more about in person with my kids sometime later.
So I promptly excused myself to the restroom, and sent that quote as best I could remember it to my daughter. Via text.