Digital Tracking Devices and Farm Kids Off the Grid

Various digital devices now help parents locate and track their children—for many, the safety factors are appealing. Wearable GPS tracking devices mean Mom and Dad can look at a screen and know if six-year-old Jane is wandering away from the family picnic or if sixteen-year-old Johnny has cranked up the family car to 80 mph on his way to the convenience store.

Helicopter parents and free-range devotees can argue the merits of these monitoring systems, but I know one thing for sure: such precision parenting methods would have ruined our days as predigital kids growing up on a farm.
My dad and his brother managed a 480-acre crop and livestock operation. Until we were old enough to do chores and drive tractors, we kids thought of this land as our private playground. With ten boys and four girls in the combined families, we needed the space—creeks, pastures, groves, and barns were perfect for tunnels and hay forts. Somehow, no one got killed.
We grew up when digital referred to the fingers we used to dial the new rotary phone that hung on our kitchen wall. A GPS app on mom’s iPad would have completely altered life as we knew it. The screen would have flashed warnings at regular intervals. What’s the icon for a bee sting, a fish hook in the finger, an accidental fall in the creek? A modern-day parent might have sent in an emergency drone when the screen showed excited cattle running at a few goofy boys crossing the pasture or when one of the younger kids was talked into climbing high up in the cottonwood tree and was now too scared to descend.
A recent ad for one tracking device says, “Whether your child is starting kindergarten or middle school, wearable GPS technology helps you keep track of their day without being too intrusive—giving you the peace of mind that every parent dreams of.” When I envision Mom and Aunt Ruth monitoring us, the phrase “peace of mind” does not float by—more like an image of that Norwegian painting called “The Scream.”
It would not have been fun for us either. A parent with a digital monitor might have stopped us from trying to roll up dried corn silks in paper for our first venture into Marlboro Country. And any Little League parent would have sent the authorities to intercede when we played ball. First base was a tree, center field was a road ditch, and the rules were arbitrary. “Tagged ya. Yer out.” “No fair. I tripped over the dog on my way ‘round second.”
Modern wearables for kids might include phones and internet access, so we could have looked up “dam construction” as we were moving rocks and packing mud in the creek. Chances are, we never would have slowed the water’s flow; we would have been sitting on the bank playing Candy Crush or texting friends. On the other hand, Mom could have messaged us when it was time to trudge home for dinner. It was easy to ignore the high-tech method we used back then—Aunt Ruth turned on the yard light. We always had an excuse. “Gee, sorry we’re late, Mom. We were having a rotten apple war in the grove. Terry and Mike had us pinned down behind the oak tree.”
Responsibilities and “maturity” eventually encroached on our playground, but for a wonderful stretch of time, we wandered off the radar screens. Whether it was one of us rolling in a pile of leaves with our dog or seven of us crossing into the neighbor’s woods to hunt for beaver dams, we knew there wasn’t a benevolent Big Brother watching. For better or worse, we trudged back into the house by meal time and answered that classic question, Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.*

by dan gogerty

Note: * The title of a popular bestseller when it first appeared in 1957, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing is Robert Paul Smith’s nostalgic look back on his 1920s childhood.

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