Why I'm Not GPS Tracking My Teenager

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
tracking my teenager

When my oldest started driving, I immediately did what any caring, modern, and loving mother would do — I installed a GPS tracking app on his phone. Most cellular family plans include tracking apps anyway, so why not?

This was for safety reasons of course, and if I could see where he and his phone were at all times, I could relax knowing he arrived safely at all his destinations. I’m not alone in this thinking, as there are literally dozens of teen driving apps available in the app store. There’s everything from an app that will rat your kid out if they unlock their phone while driving, an app to tell you what speed they’re going and when/if they exceed the speed limit, apps that will read aloud any text you send your teen, and even driving logs that will archive every car trip your teen takes. You can even secretly install a GPS tracking device on their car if one doesn’t exist on it already.

So I eagerly uploaded a variety of safe teen driving and location tracking apps to both of our phones, and I sent him on his happy and heavily monitored way. This raising an independent teenager thing was going to be a piece of cake because he would be living under my constant surveillance. Thank you, software developers, for helping this anxious mom endure her son’s newfound freedom!

Two weeks later, I removed them all.

You see, in theory, these innovative GPS trackers and speed monitors are a great idea. We all want our kids to stay safe and drive safely, and as parents, we want to have the tools we need to ensure that happens. But eventually, those tools and apps start to manage us.

I ended up spending too many hours of my day watching a blinking pushpin slowly make its way across a map, and too many minutes checking, rechecking, refreshing, then checking again to see if my teen was where he said he was, and if the app agreed. In some warped effort to protect him and keep my sanity, I threw trust and faith out the window and metaphorically strapped a house arrest tracker on my own kid’s ankle. And he had done absolutely nothing wrong except to be luckily (or unluckily) born in a time that provides such technologies. We have them, so why not use them, right? Who wouldn’t want that peace of mind? At first, I wanted it, and then I just plain didn’t.

I told myself it was time to embrace my inner free-range parent and put a little (okay, a lot) of trust in my teenager, so I landed the GPS tracking helicopter cold turkey. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made as a parent of a teenager, considering practically every other parent I knew was still happily clinging to their phone apps, telling me exactly where their kid was at any given moment.

And then there was me, doing it the old-fashioned way, just faithfully waiting for my teenager to get home from practice without knowing what mile marker he was on. I was putting every ounce of trust I could muster into the hands of a 17-year-old male whose brain wasn’t even fully developed yet. But I know for me, it was the right thing to do. I needed to allow myself to begin to let him go, and this was how I was going to start doing it. I would trust my kid, not a tracker.

That same kid has since started college and moved four hours away, and although the temptation to fire up the tracker again was almost too hard to resist, I did resist it. I’m one of very few college moms I know who don’t know the exact campus whereabouts of their kid 24 hours a day and who have instead chosen to push that baby bird out of the nest and not track which nest they make their way into next.

It’s this curse of constant connection that has made his transition to college often difficult, simply because the ability to always be connected exists. I’m sure for some parents relying on that instant and constant connection is comforting, but for me, I had to swiftly cut the cord. I couldn’t see myself spending another four years watching a flashing circle on a map make its way from one keg party to the next, and I refused to be a hostage to his sketchy cellular service or an accidental dead phone battery that would only give me a full-blown panic attack, not peace of mind.

Every parent who has ever dropped off a kid at college, or sent them away to the armed forces, or moved them into their first apartment, will tell you the need to stay connected to them is so innately and deeply felt it’s practically magnetic. It’s natural to always want to know what they are doing and need to know where they are.

But at the same time, so is the need to let them grow apart from you, to let them figure out how to live, how to manage their own lives, how to fail and get back up again — all without their parents as an audience. Yes, I will always be there for my kids, and they will always have my unconditional support. But from now on, it’s gonna have to be from behind the scenes, not the front row tracking his every act.

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