One recent afternoon, while my GPS was struggling to load the way to the diner where I was planning to meet my husband for lunch, my son became concerned that we wouldn’t ever get there. It was a diner we’d never been to in an area of a neighbouring city that I’m mostly unfamiliar with. “But we can’t get there if the GPS doesn’t load,” my 9-year-old exclaimed.
“What? Of course we can,” I replied.
I listed all the ways: I could call my husband and ask for directions. We could go back inside, fire up the computer, look up the directions and write them down. We could look up a map of our area. We could call the diner and ask them which way to turn when we get off the freeway. “This technology is really still so new,” I told him. “People used to have to navigate to new places all the time without a phone telling them which way to turn.”
Now that I had his attention, I told him how I drove across the country at age 22 with nothing to guide me except a really big map and some confidence. This is my generation’s version of walking two miles to school in a blizzard, uphill, both ways. He was, I assure you, impressed.
I thought about that conversation today when I read this piece in the New York Times about an 11-year-old girl who was temporarily “lost”—without a smartphone—in New York City and managed to survive. She was supposed to meet a babysitter at a nearby Starbucks after her swim lesson (some wires got crossed and the babysitter was waiting at a different nearby Starbucks).
Micaéla Birmingham writes that her daughter eventually called her from an unknown phone number:
She went on. “I waited in Starbucks for a really long time.” She didn’t see her friend’s babysitter, but she ordered a drink. The line was long and the barista got her order wrong, so she had little confidence that the Starbucks employees were going to be much help. So she left.
I finally mustered some words:
“Where are you? Are you O.K.?” I panted.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “I walked to the really nice apartment building next to Starbucks and asked the doorman to use the phone.”
This girl, at 11 years old, is in a true “tween” stage of her life—that is, too young to have a smartphone (as far as her parents are concerned) but old enough to have the independence to navigate the world a bit on her own. These are prime teach-them-how-to-get-where-they-need-to-go-without-GPS years.
Here are some ways to help build a kid’s confidence to be able to make their way around without mindlessly following the blue twists and turns on the screen in front of them.
Make it their job to remember where you parked
When you go to Target or the restaurant with the wrap-around parking lot or the parking garage downtown, challenge them to remember where you parked and let them guide your way back. This will help them build the habit of observing their surroundings and looking for context clues (next to the shopping cart corral or on the second floor, straight across from the elevators).
Have them navigate you to your hotel room
The next time you’re staying in a hotel and the employee pulls out that little map to show you where your room is located, turn the job over to your kid.
Teach them which way is north, south, east and west in their town
I try to make it a habit to verbalise which direction we’re travelling (“Oops, I need to turn around; I’m going west and I should be going east.”) so that my son can start to feel oriented on how our town is laid out. He should know that the downtown area is south of us and his school is north.
Let them be in charge of the map at the amusement park
It’s time for lunch? OK, bust out the map, kiddo. What are our options? Where are we now and what’s the closest place to get a slice of pizza?
Ask for directions when they’re with you
This is especially great if you’re visiting a new or unfamiliar town. Maybe you want to ask a local for a good restaurant recommendation. Let your kids witness you asking for directions so they can get a feel for how to explain how to get to a place. And then they can help you remember. “Wait; were we supposed to make a right or a left at the stop sign?”
Make sure they’ve memorised your phone number
Even if they have a basic little flip phone for emergencies, you should be periodically checking that they have your phone number memorised. Flip phones do break or get lost and their batteries die. If they’ve got your number memorised and they can’t figure out where they’re going, they can always call you to ask. They should have their address memorised, too, in case they need to put it into someone else’s GPS.