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The difference between parenting and policing

Last Wednesday, NBC Nightly News showcased a new service called Report My Teen, which allows the parents of teenage drivers to monitor their teens’ conduct and competence on the road. Report My Teen outfits the teen’s vehicle with a sticker listing a phone number and PIN. Concerned drivers can call the number and lodge complaints about the teen’s driving, and these telephoned comments are forwarded directly into the parents’ voicemail.

While we can’t entirely criticize efforts to make the roads safer, especially for inexperienced drivers, this new service is the perfect example of a growing trend in teen-rearing: less parenting, more policing.

Raising teenagers is difficult, probably more so nowadays than ever before. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s acceptable to outsource responsibilities. Whatever its altruistic intentions, Report My Teen seems to us to be an opportunity — or excuse — for passing the buck to complete strangers. The service’s website, www.reportmyteen.com, states that the “watchful eye of the community clearly changes driving behaviors of our children.”

(For the record, the website also takes a bizarrely flippant attitude toward false reports: “Prank calls are easy to detect and can be cute and fun.”)

The growing tendency to police rather than parent goes far beyond a neighborhood watch for teenage drivers. Parents can now equip their children’s cell phones with GPS devices that continuously inform them of their children’s location.

The safety applications are obvious, and if a child is abducted, this could be life-saving technology.

However, the practical implication of this advancement has taken a turn toward surveillance, not safety. Parents can program the child’s schedule into their own phones, and if the child is not where he or she is supposed to be at any given time of the day, the parents are automatically notified.

Technology can be an invaluable tool for responsible parents, and its ability to increase parents’ awareness of their children’s whereabouts and activities is not necessarily a bad thing. But whatever its sophistication, technology should never begin to replace parents as the dominant presence in their children’s lives. Parents should use it in tandem with nurturing and teaching honesty and responsibility, otherwise children will simply rebel more vigorously against what they perceive to be unnecessarily overbearing parents.

Maybe moms and dads can take advantage of this new form of community involvement by applying stickers to their backsides that read, “How’s my parenting?” We’d love to see how cute and fun those prank calls are.