I really want to be a free-range mother. I have visions of letting my kids leave our apartment building, walk themselves across the street to the playground or take the bus to school when they are a little bit older. But we live in NYC along with 8,336,697 other people (side note I can’t resist: New York City has the highest population density of any major city in the United States, with 27,532 people per square mile). So I worry about them. When my son is dragging his feet because he doesn’t want to go to school in the morning, or my energetic daughter runs up ahead to wait at the fruit stand for a banana, I let them out of my sight but my heart always quickens for that minute. What if someone grabbed them? What if they got confused and ran the wrong way? Now technology can help.
One of the kid watch trackers from Filip Technologies, is a cool-looking watch not only follows your child’s location but lets them get calls from up to five people, programmed by parents. In an Inspector Gadget/Penny-type communication, the child can lift the watch to their ear to hear or their mouth when talking. The watch also has a red panic button your child can push if they get separated from you in a crowd. The watch then starts dialing each of the authorized people until someone answers.
Another new tracking device, Trax, is used with an app to show your child’s exact location. Tobias Stenberg, co-founder of Wonder Technology Solutions, a company in Stockholm that makes the device, believes their product is best for very young children like mine.
The tracker is meant for those worrisome moments when parents trying to keep an eye on a child playing in the garden, for example, suddenly discover that he or she isn’t there. “Your first reaction is a bit of panic, but if you look at your phone, you can see, ‘Oh, she’s returned to her room’.”
My first thoughts in reading about these new products were “I freaking need these!” and “how soon can I get them?” It’s heaven-sent! To be able to let my kids out of my reach in the busy city, to follow through when I say “we’re leaving now and you better get on board,” without having to look back over my shoulder every single second. To let them (eventually) gain some independence in a city where at 2 and 4 they already know how to navigate the one-stop express bus route to school without me having to lose my mind thinking about them as elementary school kids on their own. I think it’s nothing short of genius.
Of course, not everyone agrees.
Lisa Damour, a parenting psychologist and director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio believes it’s a mixed blessing at best.
“I can understand how a parent might want to know if their child is having a problem, but I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful for children to always be able to turn to their parents when they are struggling,” she said. “We want children to develop problem-solving skills and the capacity to manage stress” as they practice drawing on their own resources, or those of teachers, friends and others around them.
The panic button might have an unintended effect that’s not in the best interest of the child, she said. “It may reduce the parents’ anxiety to give their child a panic button, but I can readily imagine that it increases the child’s anxiety,” she said. “It sends a strong message that the child is at real risk of danger. This goes against what we know statistically.”
I get what she’s saying, but I’m not buying it. If I were getting these devices, I wouldn’t expect it to substitute for important conversations. Kids need to understand that it is safest to stay together, they need to be taught who and where to turn when they are lost or confused, and they should be able to recite their address and phone number as early as five years old. But having the technology to backstop those life skills while they are in progress? I’m not going to second guess it. Now I just hope I can afford them.