Care and Feeding

Should I Put Trackers on My College-Age Kids’ Phones?

I know I shouldn’t, but I envy my friends who know where their kids are.

A mom looks over the shoulder of her adult daughter, while she's on her smartphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Purestock/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

About the time smartphones became popular, many of my mom friends put trackers on them before they handed them over to their kids. The agreement was that they were happy to pay for the phones but they wanted the peace of mind of being able to contact or find them. I didn’t do this—a combo of my kids getting cellphones later than most kids and because I just don’t think about stuff like this. Now both my kids are in college, and it’s way too late to install anything like that now, but I find myself envying my friends who continue to know where their children are.

Case in point, my college son went completely AWOL for three days (despite a couple of texts I had sent about a tuition payment due). By the time he made contact, I was starting to really be worried. My friends don’t have those issues. Their sons might not get in touch with them, but they can easily see that they’re walking to class. But it’s healthier not to monitor, right? So why does this weigh on me?

—Way out of Touch

Dear WooT,

I fully support the decision to give your children (not your college-age children) phones you pay for, with the stated and agreed-to proviso that you want “Find My Friends” or what have you enabled, and that you will do some degree of making sure they’re not planning to join a death cult, etc. The deep parenting state, but with your child’s buy-in.

You have an adult. You’re not always going to know where he is. They survived untracked throughout high school, and you have done a fine job. You should not be able to track your college-age student. Your friends are being weird. I attended college on 100 percent need-based financial aid, so my complete financial autonomy from my parents (and the fact it was 2001) made things like sharing my grades and personal activities completely voluntary. I respect that people who are dropping $40,000-plus a year may want to be able to hold that over their adult children to the extent of tracking their locations, but I think it’s deeply ill-advised. I would like to know what all my exes are up to at all times and if they are talking about me, but it wouldn’t be good for me.

You’re doing great. The other parents are making poor choices. This is permission to stop feeling like you missed out, from a professional advice columnist. Your relationship with your adult children is only going to benefit from this more hands-off approach.

Free yourself from this regret.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How can I help my 13-year-old boy take best care of his acne NOW, before it gets worse without good treatment, or do I need to back the heck off?

My son is starting to get a lot of acne. I had terrible acne through my teenage years, which were before some of the most effective treatments, but also I didn’t get the most aggressive treatment for it (prescription rather than over the counter). My son is already on the same oily, blemished path I am still on, and I imagine it is going to be worse for him than it was for me acne-wise (not necessarily self-image-wise).

Thankfully, he is currently not super self-conscious of this, which is good for his self-image, and also good that he isn’t any kind of picker, which is good for avoiding scars (better than I was). I have tried to provide over-the-counter products and instruction based on my best research, and maybe he sometimes uses them and refuses some.

I’ve tried to super gently say, “Oh, hey, hon, next time we are at the doctor, there are actually some medications you can take to prevent zits. Would you be interested in talking to the doctor about this?” Answer is always, “MOM! It’s FINE!!”

I am in a position where I can see that a stitch in time saves nine, and he isn’t, but I don’t want to embarrass him or force him, and my prior traumas don’t need to be his!

—I Know More!

Dear IKM,

You are so close to getting it, I can feel it! Your traumas really aren’t his. He’s doing fine. If at some point, he says, “Mom, let’s go to the doctor and investigate some bigger solutions,” you can screech into the room like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, ideally wearing pants, and say “I’ll go start the car.”

Right now, you don’t have a problem, because he doesn’t have a problem. (He’s not even picking!) Trust me, your child is part of the Instagram generation—he knows more about how his face looks than any previous generation. He’s fine. He knows who to talk to if he wants to get on spiro or Accutane.

Bite your tongue and ride it out. I’m sorry your adolescence was haunted by your skin, and I fully understand your desire to save him from that. He’s not haunted. He’s fine. All is well.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My nephew is about to turn 5 years old. He is on the autism spectrum and has a particular aversion to the “Happy Birthday” song. He does not seem to have a problem with singing in general (when his preschool brings in a musical guest to sing songs and play guitar, he is often right next to the singer, sometimes even dancing), but something about his family singing and approaching with cake is a big problem, whether it’s his birthday or someone else’s.

We are all totally fine with skipping the song in his presence, but do you have any advice on alternatives before he or the birthday person blows out the candles? Being the child-free auntie, I really don’t know what spoken-word birthday blessing thing would appeal to a young child. I’m also thinking we should avoid a group chant, just in case that’s part of the problem.

I just don’t want my nephew or his sibling to feel like birthdays are less special because there isn’t a big to-do before the cake. Or am I overthinking it? After all, everyone still gets to blow out candles, and my nephew has no aversion to cake, ice cream, or presents.

—Auntie to an Awesome Little Guy

Dear AtaALG,

I was excited to suggest Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song as a variant, but it sounds as though it’s the combo of the chant and the approaching cake that freaks out your lovely young nephew.

My recommendation is also what I do at birthday parties for my adult friends: One of you uses a spoon to clink a glass and suggests we go around and share something we love about the birthday person (the glass clinker goes first). Everyone enjoys this, it’s a lovely distraction for the kid, and it can be the bridge to bringing out the cake.

I also think that your nephew will have a huge decline in stress if his parents promise him ahead of time that there will be no “Happy Birthday” singing so he’s not quietly dreading it. Just cake. Easy peasy.

Thanks for looking out for the young lad. People are so prone to dragging their neuro-atypical kids through various childhood landmarks they always wanted to share with them (trick-or-treating, meeting Santa, etc.) and then being shocked when itchy costumes, routine change, sensory overload, and strangers result in an utterly predictable meltdown. We have the children we have. They are not here to click boxes off our parental checklists of “things I want them to experience.”

Good aunting!

Dear Care and Feeding,

What do I do if my 4-year-old daughter walks in on us having sex? This hasn’t happened (yet), but I got pretty loud the other night, and it got me thinking.

—Mummy and Daddy’s Special Hug?

Dear Mummy and Daddy’s Special Hug,

Look how proactive you’re being! I have two pieces of advice: a lock on your bedroom door and an opaque locking box for your sexual accessories. Your kids may never walk in midact, but they 100 percent will go through your drawers and your closet—this is a promise from me to you.

If they find your butt plug, that’s on them, but I think we’re on the same page that you’d rather they didn’t. Lock that stuff up now, long before you think there’s the slightest chance they’re tossing your closet for Christmas presents. You’ll never regret it.

As to the walk-in, the door lock and trying to be a little quieter are really your best solutions. Scream into a pillow, make it a fun game, whatever.

Kids are rarely permanently scarred by seeing their parents have sex (Paige on The Americans walking in on them 69-ing notwithstanding), and it … usually only happens once.


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