The Covid kids who spent high school in their bedrooms go to college


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 to check if the GPS tracker was visible to anyone 6′ tall.

My phone had the GPS tracking app loaded and I was ready to go. We drove eight hours north to put my curly-haired firstborn, a hockey-playing, computer-building freshman, into his college dorm.

How did I get here? Covid.

On the last week for summer vacation eight years prior, I gave my children the trip of a life time. It was a 495-foot walk from the Capitol Hill corner shop, ALONE. They were 7 and 10, and I was putting them at risk of arrest by letting go.

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

Moms like mine were in the news when America decided to criminalize independence from childhood. Florida and South Carolina mothers were taken into custody after their children aged 7 and 9 were found playing in their own backyard parks. 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.

In kindergarten, I walked myself to the bus station and cycled more than a kilometer on grocery runs with my mom. My dad took me and another kid to the bus stop when I was 4 years old. He then visited my mom at the cafe where she worked as a waitress. We enjoyed his Marlboro reds. No one took 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. It is not listed in the statutes for thirty-nine states. They play it each case.

We tried to remember the lessons independence taught us as the boys grew older. Both knew the D.C. Metro cold and could arrange their own meals and get to appointments. It all came to a halt when they were both locked up in their bedrooms and 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, so I did track their locations through my debit card spending history but tried to keep it cool.

Despite their brotherly rivalry, they both agreed that it was the best part about their summer.

Another big test was next. This was for my husband as well as me: college

The 2026 college class is yet another cohort that was famine-tortured, stunted, and fried by this pandemic. Students such as my son spent nearly half of their high school years in their bedrooms. The huge leaps in independence and the milestones that lead to maturity that come from surviving highschool were missing. Colleges now accept students as young as 18 years old, but who are still emotionally and socially 15 or 16 years old.

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?

As we drove up to Massachusetts, I was overcome with emotion, especially as we passed minivans covered in bike racks filled with brightly-colored bikes. It was amazing how it went so fast. 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.

He did everything we wanted and more than we could have hoped for. He did it.

“Let’s go to your car for a sec,” I told him, before the big goodbye. I opened the backdoor, reached under the seat, and untied the blinking GPS. I gave it to my friend.

“Mom,” my son said. “Really?”

Through 48 soppy, snotty teargas I exhaled. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “This is just so hard.”

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

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