So many of the worst nightmares of parenting start with a phone call: a child out of arm’s reach, not in the house, not in her bed. Or, in this case, a text on a rainy night from my daughter to my wife, who then relayed a command to me: go pick her up now. Instead of taking the subway to the Upper West Side, as I would have any other night, I got into my car and dashed up the West Side Highway. My daughter is in middle school; this was the first time she’d ever been to a nighttime party, at the house of a friend from school. A parent would be at home the whole time, we’d been told. How bad could it be?
“There was a boy making jokes about rape,” my daughter said, five minutes later, in the passenger seat. “We told him to shut the fuck up, but he wouldn’t, and my friend’s mom told her to try to work it out herself, which was completely unfair, and everyone was crying, and I just got tired of it, and I have a headache. That’s why I texted Mom.”
I take the blame for my daughter’s casual profanity. My wife is responsible for her emotional acuity. No one can say where she gets her unflappable, don’t-mess-with-me temperament. She is a chaos manager and an empath. But adolescence is a wet street, where skidding is likely and the car sometimes feels entirely weightless. Last summer, an older girl we knew of—a friend of friends—fell from a fire escape and died during a party. When I heard the news, I did the predictable thing: I measured the distance between my nearest child and this catastrophe. It felt very short. The pills in every parent’s medicine cabinet. A friend saying, “Oh, I know what this one does.” Another friend saying, “It’s no big deal, we go out there all the time, it’s just like having a balcony.”
“She did the right thing,” I said to my wife later. “She made the right decision and called us because she didn’t feel safe.” The unspoken question, hanging between us: What about the next time, and the next? And another question, more like a demand: Why can’t we be sure? We want to be sure.
In my junior year of high school, in 1992, I briefly convinced myself I was H.I.V.-positive. I had a low-grade fever, night sweats, chills, and a cough that lasted more than a month. I wasn’t wildly sexually active, though I’d had sex. My biggest fear, which magnified grotesquely the more I thought about it, was that I’d been exposed while working as a hospital volunteer in an emergency room when I was thirteen, in 1987. I’d handled bloody instruments once or twice, and I had been close to all manner of sick patients. Couldn’t that be enough? I read Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” in English class, which convinced me that I was about to die and enter nirvana. (Don’t laugh.) I told no one. Finally, after weeks of the most intense worrying, I worked up the courage to go to my family doctor, explain the situation, and ask for an H.I.V. test.
If I were a teen-ager in 2019, I’m not sure I’d be able to keep that kind of secret. There probably are teen-agers out there who could face an existential fear without a single Internet search, without texting or posting or sharing, who could cover their tracks sufficiently to prevent a determined parent from snooping, but I haven’t met any. When I was seventeen, I didn’t have to decide whether or not to act like a media hermit, but I did have to decide whether or not to say anything out loud, and I chose not to. I needed to sort out the difference between fantasy, paranoia, and fact; when I couldn’t do it alone, I had to choose the kind of help I needed.
What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life? I started wondering about this a few years ago—while my own kids were still enmeshed in Daniel Tiger and Rainbow Looms—over a weekend with friends who had two teen-age girls at home. Their house had a strict device-management system, where phones and iPads lived at a charging station in the kitchen and could only be “checked out” for short, approved periods. My friend C. sat with his daughter and thumbed through her text messages, reviewing them for content. You have to do that, he told me later. I’m not sure what particular danger we talked about, but it’s easy to list the possibilities: bullying, suicide talk, drug talk, stalkers, predators. There are secret texting apps and anonymous texting apps; there are chat forums and comment sections; there’s Twitch and Whisper and Kik, and, because I’m forty-four and not fourteen, surely many others that I haven’t heard about.
I’ve talked to scores of parents who use location-monitoring software to track their teen-agers’ movements, who scrutinize their Instagram feeds and photo streams, play the same online games, add themselves to group chats. A motivated parent can give their young driver a car that shuts off the radio, won’t go above a certain speed, and sends text alerts home if the car goes outside a pre-approved area. This is in addition to all the other ways children and teen-agers are no longer allowed to be left alone: over the last decade, dozens of American parents have been charged with criminal neglect for leaving their children in a car for a few minutes, or for letting them walk or ride bikes in their own neighborhoods. A movement for “free-range parenting” has pushed back against this culture of obsessive supervision, which also criminalizes the dilemmas faced by single parents, two-career parents, and parents who don’t earn enough to pay for constant childcare. Its leaders point out, among other things, that U.S. crime rates have fallen dramatically over the last twenty years, and it’s safer for children to be alone now than it was in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when today’s parents were young.
As my children get older, I’m realizing how profoundly my instincts have been shaped by this culture of constant supervision, which wants to believe it’s the same thing as intimacy. I still prefer it, over all, to the enormous distance that I sometimes felt as a teen-ager toward my parents. But I want to ask: Who is speaking up, today, for a young person’s right to a private life, to secrets, unshared thoughts, unmonitored conversations and relationships? Phrasing it this way sounds dangerous, and also counterintuitive: Don’t teen-agers and young adults today accept that technology is embedded in every aspect of their lives, that just being alive means being present (at least to some degree) online? My daughter, just coming into her own digital domain, certainly does: she has her own phone and laptop, ostensibly for homework, is allowed to text and chat with her friends, and desperately wants her own social-media accounts. Kids her age seem to accept, reluctantly, that the price of having a social life is having their parents one step away from everything they do, sharing the same accounts, playlists, search histories. We’re the ones who regulate her time online (and use the indispensable plug-in Freedom to keep her offline while she’s studying, just as we use it ourselves). When we notice an item that warrants a conversation—a questionable YouTube search, for example—we talk about it. At length. We’ve already had more family conversations on issues related to sex—sometimes in the form of extremely contemporary tangents, related to Cardi B’s taste in shoes or Stormy Daniels’s career choices—than I ever had with my parents.
In a way, this seems like a useful and necessary compromise, but it’s also transparently a product of what Judith Warner, in 2006, called “perfect madness”: the need to manage every aspect of a child’s life, moving from one benchmark to another, between very narrow parameters, to an increasingly remote likelihood of success. This concern for children’s whereabouts—physical and psychological—isn’t just warding off some kind of catastrophic danger; it’s about an aversion to any kind of risk, to even the smallest mistake or setback. Anxious parenting is an optimization economy with no upper limit, which turns every second of a child’s life, in and out of school, into a commodity: from nanny-cams to high-impact strollers to Kumon to internship consultants to college-essay tutors, and it privileges those who have the least to worry about. ((A recent Times essay quotes Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University: “Intensive parenting is a way for especially affluent white mothers to make sure their children are maintaining their advantaged position in society.”)
I was raised in an affluent, white, status-conscious, highly anxious family, in the eighties and early nineties, but without anything like the attention children experience today. My parents were busy with their careers, and assumed that my brother and I could take care of ourselves, particularly as we entered adolescence. It was a compromise that most friends my age grew up with: get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent, the thinking went, and you can do what you want the rest of the time. (A friend of mine, ruefully reflecting on his years at Bronx Science in the eighties, told me, “I quit cocaine when I was sixteen.”) That kind of laissez-faire parenting, bordering on neglect, seems diametrically opposed to the hyperattentive parenting of my generation, but these approaches share one instructive point: they’re primarily concerned with how to succeed and how not to die. Actual life, adult life, disappears somewhere over the horizon. Particularly the kinds of necessary, tortuously difficult questions children and teen-agers are most curious about: What does it mean to stay in a committed relationship? How is it possible to stay in the same job for years and not die of boredom? What does it take to keep a lifelong friend? Why write thank-you notes? Why use sunscreen?
When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live! “Letters” is extremely easy to mock for people not in its target demographic, but for teen-agers it couldn’t be more meaningful, particularly because Rilke focusses so much of his attention on the likelihood that his correspondent won’t become a poet. His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone. He writes,
Even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the
sounds of the world come to your senses—would you not then still have
your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house
of memories? . . . Try to raise the submerged
sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm,
your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which
the noise of others goes by far away . . . This inward
searching which I ask of you will not have been in vain.
There aren’t many places where children and teen-agers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access. Earlier this year, well before we had agreed, my daughter rode the subway for the first time by herself. Her usual subway partner, a couple grades older, unexpectedly had to stay late for a drama rehearsal; there was no other obvious solution, so she sent us a quick text and departed, not waiting for permission. I imagined all the worst-case scenarios first. Then I thought of her sitting quietly on the train, with her backpack in her lap, listening to music, reading, or just looking around her, feeling the sheer largeness of the world, the strangeness of being one person among so many others, unwatched.