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My daughter can’t read a map. And your kid probably can’t either

(Hans Laubel/iStockPhoto)

As parents we spend so much time worrying about the skills our children will need to survive in the real world—at least the world beyond the safety and security of their childhood home. It starts when we teach them to hold our hand while crossing the street, then morphs into discussions about “Stranger Danger” when they are a bit older. We teach them how to order lunch in a restaurant, how to ask for help in a department store and how to use the ATM. We quiz them on their address, telephone number, mother’s cell phone number and father’s first name.

But by the time your wee one is 11 or 12 years old they will be ready to venture farther away from the safety shield you have carefully installed with your lessons, warnings and rosary beads. Whether they want to be dropped off at the local movie theater with friends or just to ride their bikes to the convenience store for a cold drink, you can’t blame them for wanting to taste their long-awaited freedom. Blink twice and they’re teens, anxious to drive on their own or ride along with friends. But here’s the thing among all of that—have you taught your child to read a map?

Ask any teenager for directions and he can pull up Google Maps quicker than you can recite an address. Pretty awesome, right? And I’ll be the first to admit that having a map in my phone that not only tells me where to turn but how long it will take me to get there is pretty amazing. I use it all the time, honestly. But even when I’m zoning out and listening to that soothing voice telling me where to turn, I have a mental picture in my head of her directions. And I never realized that my teenage daughter doesn’t have a map in her head, because she’s never really had to use one. Ever. I think the only time I’ve really used a map with her was when we used to visit the zoo. And seriously, the zoo is laid out in a giant circle—even the lousiest of map readers can’t get lost at the zoo.

A few weeks ago my 16-year-old announced that she wanted to drive herself to her SAT testing location, which was in a town about 20 miles away by freeway. This would be her longest drive alone since first getting her license seven months ago. Since she was oozing with confidence and ready for the challenge I (gulp) agreed with her decision. “Do you remember how to get there?” I asked, since we had been there once before when I was the driver. She looked at me like I was the village idiot. “Um, I have the address. And I have my phone.”

“Okay, but let’s take a look at the map!” I said cheerfully, hoping to diffuse the panic I felt setting in.

Had I really forgotten to teach her about maps?

She continued to look at me—stunned—so I left the room to go grab a map made of real paper and folded origami-style into a neat, perfect rectangle. “So,” I started, trying not to sound too much like a first-grade teacher, “which direction will you be heading on the freeway?”

“I don’t know, left? Whichever direction she tells me to turn,” she said matter-of-factly. Since I was hoping for the answer “east” my hopes for the rest of the map lesson started to fade. I spread the map out on the kitchen table and pointed out landmarks and the place where the name of the freeway changes for a bit, in case that got confusing. She humored me for the next few minutes, until I refolded the map (which is also a life skill, btw) and stopped lecturing. When the time came for her big solo drive, she not only made it there without getting lost but she made it back home without incident. Another notch on her belt.

But being able to read a map, and to orient your brain as to where you are and which direction you need to head is a very important skill. My older son knew enough about reading maps to navigate around Berlin and Hamburg when he was 15 years old. Try riding the BART train into San Francisco without being able to read the train route map and you might wind up riding for hours. Even the amazing technology we have in our phones can’t completely replace the good old-fashioned map.

So learn from my parenting faux pas and teach your younger kids how to read a map. At least you’ll know they can find the exit at the zoo.

Sherri Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California. She blogs at Old Tweener.  She tweets @SherriLKuhn and is on Facebook.

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