The other night, like a growing number of parents, I succumbed to the allure of Uber. Since then, I’ve felt — well, uber conflicted.
Having my 15-year-old son use the automobile-for-hire service, accessed via a Smartphone app, seemed like an absolute no-brainer. My husband and I had dropped off Nathaniel at a friend’s house, a solid half-hour drive away, after dinner on Friday. He needed to be picked up around midnight—or, he suggested, he could take Uber home with a couple of friends.
At the end of a long week of work, my husband and I were only too happy to say, “Sure, go ahead and Uber.”
Now available in dozens of cities across the country, Uber is catching on with parents who need to get their kids from place A to place B and can’t always manage it. In many cases, they aren’t simply looking for a little break, like we were. As families try to juggle their busy lives, having Uber—prized for its convenience, reliability and safety—can be a true godsend. The San Francisco-based company connects professional drivers of luxury-style black cars or SUVs with passengers, or provides a more affordable option, UberX, where private drivers use their own cars ot pick up riders.
We know families who use Uber when both parents are working and their kid has to get home from a late school event. Others tap it to make sure their son or daughter can get to a music lesson or a tutoring session (and seem all the more willing now that Uber has started offering services that are priced competitively with cab fares). No wonder that the New York Times ran an article in September headlined, “Mom’s Van Is Called Uber.”
But as wonderful as Uber is, I’m afraid that something important may be getting lost along the way—especially when teens are allowed to use it late at night, shuttling to and from parties or hanging out with friends.
Let me be clear: Parents don’t lose total control with Uber. One of the virtues of the service is that minors can’t sign up for it; they have to be on their mom or dad’s account. And every time they order up a car, the account holder is instantly alerted with a text and can track the entire trip, from pickup to drop-off. If you’re a kid, Uber isn’t great for sneaking around.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if parents are missing out every time they rely on Uber instead of making that late-night, post-party drive themselves. This isn’t merely a matter of getting to look into your child’s eyes or smell his breath—though that can be useful for figuring out if he has been doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. When your kid knows you’re the one picking him up, he may well moderate his behavior to avoid the third degree on the way home. What’s more, if you have a son or daughter who is looking for an excuse not to drink or smoke, doing the pickup yourself can provide a graceful way for him or her to beg off.
Above all, though, using Uber takes away the chance to really listen to your children at a time when, experience tells me, they tend to let their guard down a bit. Cruising down the 101 Freeway, at 12:30 or 1 in the morning, my husband and I have each had some amazing conversations with Nathaniel and, before him, his big sister, now 21. Sometimes, it’s just catching up on the latest gossip from their circle. Other times, the drive home turns into a deep discussion on drugs or sex, on the true meaning of friendship, on the nature of adolescent hopes and fears. Taking advantage of these opportunities to shape their values—that is, to parent—is particularly crucial when your kids are 14 to 16, on the cusp of independence but still open to your influence.
The car, more than any other place I know, is like a magic bubble in which kids confide in their parents. And it seems I’m not alone in believing this. A paper from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater found that it’s an environment in which they tend to feel safe opening up about “sensitive subjects.” That’s because, the researchers write, the “teens are able to look straight forward and feel less awkward, as opposed to a face-to-face interaction across . . . a kitchen table.”
I have little doubt that we will allow Nathaniel to use Uber again from time to time. After all, it often feels like my entire life revolves around where he needs to be: school, basketball practice, an orthodontist appointment, a friend’s house, the mall, a movie. Not a day goes by without him asking his dad or me or for a ride somewhere.
But I also feel that Uber could easily become a crutch. Some of my most cherished moments as a parent have come while wearing my chauffer’s hat, and I don’t want to give those up.