Can Our Children Ever Feel Blissfully, Daringly Untrackable Like We Were?

For much of our Gen X childhoods, no one knew where the hell a lot of us were. But as my own kids are holed up in their rooms, screens going, they are exploring an aspect of the world we didn’t know about in 1984.

Illustration by Dola Sun

In the fall of 1984, when I was 10, I started taking the TANK bus by myself to and from the Wade YMCA in Covington for gymnastics practice. My sister, Nancy, escorted me for a while. But she was 17 and I was, I imagine, a drag. With my pigtails and black leotard, I’m certain I annoyed her greatly. She just wanted to do her own thing instead of babysitting me.

So she appealed to my mom. “Please, just let her ride by herself. She’ll be fine!” After raising seven children (I’m the youngest), my mom had started working again and for the first time in my life wasn’t home after school. Which meant she now had to balance the needs of a teenage daughter who just wanted to stay home and watch General Hospital with the desires of the baby of the family, who just wanted to be Mary Lou Retton.

My mom had a free-range parenting philosophy, before free-range was a parenting philosophy and was simply what you did because, well, why wouldn’t you? Nancy and my other two older sisters all did gymnastics at the Y in the 1970s, taking the bus back and forth. Now it was my turn.

So I stood at the end of our street in Ft. Wright, hopped on the “4-Main” bus, and rode the three miles down to the Y. When practice was over, which must have been about 6 p.m., since I remember it already being dark, I stood at the bus stop on Madison Avenue and caught TANK back home.

It was a grand adventure, and I felt so grown up as the bus lumbered through the streets of Park Hills and the Covington business district. When the Wade Y’s gymnastics team folded the next year—and that Y shut down soon after—I moved to Tri-City Y in Florence. It was time to learn a new bus route! My mom rode it with me once, to make sure I knew where to get off and catch it again.

A few years later, when I was 13, I started riding my 10-speed bicycle there along the busy Dixie Highway, with no helmet. I got hit once. Tapped, really. I was OK, though, and got back on my bike and kept riding.

Here’s where I have to stop and ask an important question: How could my parents possibly have let me do these things? Then again, would my parents have let me play video games and talk to kids all over the world, alone in my room, holding a tiny computer that tracked my every click? Because that’s what my kids now do.

I’m not exaggerating. My 10-year-old daughter recently made friends with a girl her age in Romania while playing the game Roblox. My son made friends over Instagram with a boy in San Diego, and we’ve now visited him twice, staying at his house over a long weekend.

Lately I’m pondering the totally unanswerable—and therefore enticing—questions about whether I would allow my preteens (ages 10 and 12) to do the things I did as a preteen. And, on the flip side, also wondering if I would have been allowed to do the things they do now.

I suspect there are a few reasons this is on my mind of late. First, COVID and social distancing have completely skewed parenting for me. We were Go, go, go with inde­pendence, and then suddenly it was all No, no, no, for reasons that had little to do with trust and everything to do with airborne virus particles. The menu of permissible activities shrunk at the exact time it should naturally have been expanding. No, you can’t leave. No, you can’t be in a group with your friends at the park. No, you can’t go to marginally supervised sleepovers.

As I write this, that menu of permissible activities remains scant. But with mass vaccinations at hand, there will come a time when it expands again—soon, I think, like this summer? Certainly by fall? In fact, I suspect my kids’ coming of age will collide perfectly with the easing of social distancing restrictions, at which point I won’t know what’s normal because we’ve been living abnormally for more than a year now.

The other reason has nothing to do with spike proteins or herd immunity. It’s simply that my kids are finally at ages that I really remember being. Memories from before about age 10 are a little like spliced-together scenes on a screen: They flash at me strongly, yet are mostly incomplete. But when I think about my tween years, the memories are more alive in my bones. I feel them in my body. Maybe it’s because this is when I started doing gymnastics and my muscle memory got turned on and began scooping up every moment and storing it.

You know what I mean, though, about that age? How fresh it can still feel? The sense of freedom on that bus is lodged in my chest. The resourcefulness of just hopping on my bike lives in my knees. The sense of being untrackable fills my lungs. My God, how untrackable I was!

My kids, by contrast, are tracked everywhere. By me, thanks to Find My iPhone, and by the internet. Yes, they wear helmets on their bikes, but some unknowable data company tracks them everywhere they go. Which one is more dangerous: the Dixie Highway at rush hour or Instagram alone in their room?

To help me write this piece, I put a post on Facebook to ask my friends—many of whom are Generation X like me—what they were allowed to do as preteens or teens that they’d never allow their own kids to do now. As expected, the responses were hilarious and fascinating.

I was hardly the only one taking the city bus at 10. Several friends talked about how they took the bus or public transportation alone at very young ages to urban centers like New York City or to pick up younger siblings from camp.

And the places we went without our parents having any clue! One friend said she used to go on eight-hour-long spelunking expeditions without her parents knowing. My husband talked about not being allowed to come home before dark in the summer. But my favorite, for sure, was this one: “Get on a horse, ride away in the morning, and not come home until evening, with zero check-ins.”

The takeaway is that, for much of our childhoods, no one knew where the hell a lot of us were. But as my own kids are holed up in their rooms, screens going, conversations with kids in Romania happening, we kind of don’t know where they are either. Sure, they’re physically here—because in COVID times they’re barely allowed to be anywhere else—but they’re gone for stretches of time, too. If the parental controls I set actually work (please work!), they’re at least not looking at porn. But they are exploring an aspect of the world we didn’t know about in 1984.

I don’t know if they’re better for knowing it or if we were better for not knowing it. I suspect it’s the wrong question altogether and I’m asking it because it’s easier to indulge in anachronistic fantasies of what life would have been like in 1984 if phones were mobile and I spent time unsupervised on TikTok instead of on buses—rather than really think about the state of many children in the world today.

We’re so good with helmets and seat belts, but not so great with checking on our children’s mental health. We know a lot more about the differences in how individual children learn, with 504 plans and all manner of interventions, but the lingering racial wealth gap still means Black children are more likely to start 10 paces behind white children. GPS means I know exactly where my children are when that mobile device is in their pocket (God, I love GPS!), but what about the parents who live in unsafe and violent places and protect their children by sending them hundreds of miles to the U.S. border with just a relative’s phone number and address pinned inside a pocket?

Think about the panic you feel when you don’t know where your kid is, and imagine the terror of sending your child across that vast landscape. Can. You. Imagine?

I really can’t. So I cry and hope for better, and I play these games instead. I tell the fun bus stories and contemplate how I can be more free-range once the threat of virus has eased. I fantasize about saying, “Go, and don’t come back until dark!”

I think about what emotions are getting locked into my kids’ muscle memory right now. I hope their most vivid childhood memories won’t simply be tied to thumbs that text and fingers that swipe. And I hope they have at least a moment each day when they feel blissfully, daringly untrackable.

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