Columnist Petula Dvorak's son moves into his college dorm. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
5 min

I could still see the flashing green light of the GPS tracker peeking out from under the car’s back seat. So I stood on my tiptoes, trying to see if it would be visible to someone 6 feet tall.

Not really. Perfect.

The GPS tracking app was loaded on my phone and we were ready to shove off, an eight-hour caravan north to install my firstborn, curly-haired, hockey-playing, computer-building freshman into his college dorm.

How did I get here? Covid.

Just eight years earlier on the last week of summer vacation, I gave my kids the trip of a lifetime (at that point in their lives): a 495-foot walk to the corner store on Capitol Hill, ALONE. They were 7 and 10 years old and I was risking arrest by letting them go.

Why I let my kids walk to the corner store — and why other parents should, too

In 2014, moms like me were making the news all over the nation when America decided to criminalize childhood independence. Mothers in Florida and South Carolina were locked up because their kids, 7 and 9, were playing at their neighborhood parks alone. In December of that year, Silver Spring mom Danielle Meitiv was investigated for child neglect when her kids — 6 and 10 — were found walking home from a park. And the nation called her “free-range mom” and picked apart her parenting.

It messed with the heads of all Gen X parents as we wondered — what happened to us?

We’re the ones who grew up wearing house key necklaces so we could walk home from school, let ourselves in and play until our parents got home.

I walked myself to the bus stop in kindergarten and pedaled my bike more than a mile on grocery runs for my mom when I was 8. My dad left me and another kid in the car when we were 4 while he visited my mom at the coffee shop where she was a waitress. We ate his Marlboro Reds. But no one abducted us.

The nation grappled with something that was unwritten into law and changed generation to generation — when can children be alone? It’s 6 years old in Kansas, 8 in Maryland and 14 in Illinois. Thirty-nine states have no specific age on the books and play it case by case.

As the boys grew up, we tried to keep remembering the lessons that independence taught us. They both knew the D.C. Metro cold by middle school, they could organize their own meals, get themselves to practices and appointments. And then, it all screeched to a stop and they were jailed in their bedrooms, chained to their computer screens. Thanks, covid.

This summer, at 15 and 18, the independence growth curve began soaring again with the requested graduation present — a no-parent trip to New York City.

“Are you serious?” a worried friend who hasn’t spent much time in New York asked. “Aren’t you afraid someone will hurt them?”

I laughed. “The biggest danger they face is each other,” I replied.

And sure enough, by Day 2 they knew the subway, found a great comic book store in the East Village and began texting me furiously, complaining about who was taking up too much space on the bed in the economy hotel, who hogged the desk and how they blew their budget on a restaurant big brother insisted on, but little brother didn’t really like.

“So eat cheaply tomorrow,” I replied. (Okay, I did track their location through debit card spending history, but tried to keep it cool.)

Despite the brotherly bickering, both said it was the best part of their summer.

Then came another big test. This one was for me and my husband: college.

The college class of 2026 is another cohort tweaked, stunted and fried by the pandemic. Students like my son spent a third or even half of their high school careers in their bedrooms, online, parents the next room over. Those huge leaps of independence, the milestones to maturity that come with surviving high school were largely missing. Now colleges are welcoming students who may be 18 in calendar years, but are socially and emotionally 15 or 16, trapped in the pandemic amber of sophomore year.

The mid-pandemic return to school has been weird for kids — and lonely, too

So that’s how I ended up sticking a magnetized GPS tracker under the seat of my son’s car, still worried that all the early lessons on independence weren’t enough, that those covid years stunted him, withered that once-flourishing independence. What happened to me?

We caravanned up to Massachusetts and I cried in bursts for much of the drive, especially when we passed minivans encrusted with bike racks full of little, brightly colored bikes. How did it go so quickly? The GPS tracker’s icon on my phone’s home screen mocked me. I was a free-range fraud.

“Mom, he’s not dying,” his younger brother said.

Move-in day was a spectacle — flags and banners flying, peer mentors bounding up to help freshmen unload trunks and lamps and duffel bags, music was booming in the quad and the dorms. As he carried his magnum opus into the dorm — a water-cooled, custom PC he saved up for and built himself — an upperclassman who recognized the grandeur said: “Whoa, cool PC! What graphics card do you have in there?” He was so happy and proud, breaking out of the pandemic chrysalis that almost devoured him, he found his people.

This is everything we wanted, everything we hoped for as parents. He did it.

“Let’s go to your car for a sec,” I told him, before the big goodbye. I opened the back door, reached under the seat and unstuck the blinking GPS. I handed it to him.

“Mom,” my son said. “Really?”

I exhaled through round 48 of soppy, snotty tears. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “This is just so hard.”

He turned the tracker off and pocketed it. “Thank you,” he said. “But I’ll be fine.”