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Amy Noelle Parks: Averil Offline (Anxiety, Tech, MentalHealth)

My oldest daughter weighed less than two pounds when she was born at 26 weeks. For three months, I spent every day beside her in the hospital watching machines that monitored her oxygen, her temperature, and her heartbeat.


I panicked each time a sensor beeped or a number dropped. Until the day an amazing NICU nurse put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Watch the baby, not the monitor.”


She meant that if my daughter’s color was good, if her breathing was regular, and if her body was calm, then she was very likely fine, no matter what the machines said. I had to learn to read my child.


In many ways, I felt like I had to relearn this lesson when both my daughters were teenagers. I struggle with anxiety, and my daughters’ first solo walks to the Target, their first drives by themselves, and their first (and second and third…) late nights out with friends brought back cravings to check the monitor.


There are so many ways to do this now. Apps on phones allow me, if I choose, to know exactly where each of my children are at any given time. I can see what they bought and who they’re with. I can set alerts to warn me if they leave the boundaries of our town.


But I fight the urge to do this because the truth is, when I’m tempted to check up on them electronically, it’s mostly about my own anxiety and not about their safety. And ironically, research shows that over-controlling parents may create more anxious kids. Over-monitoring our children literally does more harm than good.


I don’t think that parents today are more fearful than parents in generations past, but I do think that it is much more convenient and common to constantly monitor our children. The result of this constant surveillance is that children learn that their parents expect danger around every corner, and they suspect that their parents doubt their abilities to keep themselves safe.


Plus, children continually find their privacy violated. Instead of choosing which stories to tell their families, children find themselves questioned (cross-examined?) about their movements, and instead of making decisions based on their own sense of what is wrong or right, they learn to make decisions based on whether their parents will be angry.


As a parent and as a researcher who studies child autonomy, I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time. But they became real for me in a different way during my writing of Averil Offline.


When I imagined why a mother might obsessively monitor her daughter through a phone app, I thought back to my daily worry those first few months of my daughter’s life. It was easy to imagine a mother who never got over her fear, who needed to see on an hourly basis that her children were well.


And it was equally easy to imagine how a child living under that kind of surveillance might be willing to do anything to break free.


Unlike most of my books, writing the middle of Averil Offline was so fun. From the moment, Averil and Max snuck away from their bus to hide out on campus, I could hear circus music playing in my head.


It was utterly delightful to give two clever tweens riddles to solve— along with ordinary challenges like how to eat cheaply or how to find somewhere safe to sleep. And as Averil and Max worked their way through these obstacles, I could feel them growing as characters, becoming closer to each other, but also becoming who they were each meant to be.


Of course, it was easier to give independence to fictional characters than to my very real daughters, but writing the book helped me become a better parent. It reminded me that I need to trust my daughters to make choices for themselves and to let them tell me about the adventures they want to share. I needed to trust that I have prepared them to make those choices and that I know them well enough to recognize when they might be in trouble and need my help—without the assistance of an app.


Which means I still need to watch the baby, not the monitor.


Amy Noelle Parks ( also wrote the middle grade novel Summer

of Brave, as well as the young adult novels Lia and Beckett’s Abracadabra and The

Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss. A professor of elementary education at

Michigan State University, she helps future teachers recover from the trauma inflicted

on them by years of school mathematics. Social media still scares her, but she’s

working on it.


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