About the authors
Dan Griffin is a clinical psychologist specializing in families of adolescents.
Katherine Russell is Associate Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland .


Parents who want their kids to succeed more than anything are now being sold a high-tech solution. Class 120 is a $199-a-year smartphone app that tracks your teenager and alerts you if the kid isn’t in her scheduled class, and, according to figures provided by the company, 4,000 subscribers are enrolled for the upcoming fall semester. For the more budget-minded parent, surveillance apps including “My Mobile Watchdog” ($44.95) and “Sygic Family Locator” ($24.99) can perform similar surveillance duties from an iPhone or Android.

Attendance is a great predictor of college grades, even more so than scores on standardized admissions tests. If grades are good predictors of graduation, and if a parent is paying for college, isn’t it a great idea for parents to track whether their young adults are in class?

In short: No. This is a terrible idea.

One of the primary objectives of a residential college is learning to be an independent student and person. That means learning how to do what needs to be done, whether one particularly feels like doing it or not.

The first year of college is pretty late to start learning the basics of responsibility. By the time a student packs up for the first year of college, parental wake-up calls and day-to-day tracking of classroom attendance and homework completion should be a thing of the past. Instead, it should be, “Learn any new and delicious microwave recipes?” Yet helicoptering congestion persists.

It’s easy to see how parents get themselves into a situation where tracking their kids makes sense. A student is admitted to college by a process that focuses primarily on grades, courses taken and admissions test scores. Monitoring grades and scores is easy. Parents are on sure footing there. The progress is more or less linear. The narrative is clear: “Our child is succeeding. She is happy. We are good parents. We are happy.”

But adequate grades and test scores set a low bar. They don’t take into account whether that kid is ready for the responsibility of college — whether they have the strength of self-discipline, maturity and the skill set needed to care for himself or herself.

Monitoring the development of character (and related qualities including resilience, willpower and “grit”) is much harder for parents. Cultivating resilience is complicated and largely unrelated to what we usually think of as intelligence or talent. Its direction is nonlinear, and tends to expand and contract over time. And the process is often painful. Character growth happens through encountering and learning to cope with disappointments, tough jams and failures. You never know which setback will be the tipping point for growth and which will be a plain old miserable experience. A certain defeat may yield an element of character while revealing the deeper realms of success.

Letting kids fail can be really tough for anxious parents who sense that self-esteem is solely a product of success. These parents fear that failure will inevitably incur serious anxiety and depression, so failure is to avoided at any cost. Many parents are aware of disturbing trends such as the greater prevalence of serious psychological problems seen in college counseling centers or even that the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased steadily since 2007. However, the widespread belief that success means being perfect and never faltering is a big problem. The truth is kids need to learn to fail.

One cohort of young adults whose parents are most likely to track are the students who just don’t have the internal motivation to get themselves into the classroom. Maybe they’re having trouble adjusting to a new and independent life at college. Tracking may get them to go to class, but if the primary motivation is to avoid parental harangues, parents are just encouraging the adolescent mindset: Evade getting caught. And stalking keeps them from evolving more adult reasons for going to class, such as “I value this opportunity to learn.”

A kid might learn academic material if her parents nag her into going to lectures. But many students learn much more from the difficult experience of sleeping through too many lectures and bombing a midterm.

College is an ideal place to practice adult responsibility and independence in an environment where the stakes are relatively low. The majority of students rise to this challenge in their first year, manage to get to class on time, do their homework and return as sophomores. Though many struggle, most learn from mining failures and hone a “growth mindset” — the conviction that “I can cultivate the skills I need by deliberate effort.” They learn to shape their newly parent-free days around a variety other extracurricular activities that evolve them into interesting, engaging and employable adults — individuals who can make their own decisions about whether to get out of bed and go to work in the morning.

Maybe your child hasn’t learned this lesson by now, but he has to learn it sometime. An alarm clock’s job is to wake you up, and the thing works pretty well. It does not provide a reason to get up, however, particularly on a frigid December morning.  If  your student’s tracker says she failed to go to class and your daughter says she went, Class 120‘s Web site suggests finding out: “Did the student bring the smartphone to class?”  However, if the device indicates your daughter never misses class, a parent may then want to determine “Just who is it that brings  the smartphone to class each time?”

Resist the $199 solution.  Take that money, book a nice B&B for a weekend and rediscover that the partner you chose before you had a kid is a lot more interesting than trailing that kid’s every move.