There was a time when this nation's typical mom was the de facto head of an impressive, if loosely organized, intelligence network. Woe to the child who misbehaved within sight of a neighbor, teacher, shop owner or even the Good Humor man. It all got back to mother. No doubt such intelligence gathering still exists, but in the era of single and dual-working parents that network (much like the Central Intelligence Agency) is not what it was.
Except, of course, in 21st century households that have embraced the wonders of modern technology.
A Wisconsin insurance company recently started offering its policyholders a free service known as DriveCam, featuring a wireless camera that's set up behind the rearview mirror in any car a teenage son or daughter might drive. If there is any erratic vehicle movement - swerving or sudden acceleration, for instance - a video recording of the incident is posted on a Web site along with appropriate driving tips to correct the mistakes.
That might seem like a groundbreaking bit of child surveillance, but it isn't, really. At least not for moms who have already installed the Alltrack USA DriveRight Car Chip in the family vehicle. Thanks to satellite tracking technology (a Defense Department innovation, naturally), a small black box can keep real-time tabs on a teen driver's every move.
The conscientious mother will not only be notified if the driver is speeding, she could remotely set off the vehicle's horn or lights to tell the youngster to slow down immediately.
But why stop with the family car? GPS tracking of cell phones can make this ubiquitous teen accessory a kind of Trojan horse for maternal spying. With Verizon Wireless Chaperone, for instance, mom receives a detailed text message anytime the child leaves a designated zone - school or home, for instance.
And there's no shortage of software for tracking a teen's computer use. As the makers of eBlaster explain, mom can have the "power to uncover the truth." That includes copies of every e-mail, download or instant message your child sends or receives. No court order or Patriot Act loophole required.
Thanks to these and many other technological breakthroughs, teens won't need to call or hand over a card to that special someone on Mother's Day tomorrow. They'll just need to pass along their greetings into the SCS Wireless Monkey Doll Camera sitting so stealthily on the bedroom shelf. You know a new era is upon us when teens voluntarily sweep their rooms - for surveillance equipment.
It's not hard to understand the appeal of such privacy-compromising devices. It's a scary world out there with sexual predators, drunken drivers, drug dealers and who knows what other potential dangers. What's a little spying if it means a loved one is made safe? At least a mother's motives are pure.
But a child is not a terrorist; at least most aren't. Raising a son or daughter in a manner not even George Orwell's 1984 could have envisioned has its own consequences. It sends a message that the youngster is not to be trusted - and that kind of mistrust is just as likely to motivate teen rebellion as counter it.
And woe unto the middle-aged parent who expects to keep a technological edge on a teen who can probably reprogram your cell before you can say "rotary dial."
That doesn't mean certain forms of electronic monitoring might not have their place. A troubled adolescent, someone who is legitimately at risk of potentially self-destructive behavior, might require intervention. But even that assumes that the preferred method of parent-child communication, one involving greater mutual respect, has already been exhausted.
Moms know this, of course. It's why the good ones never deliberately eavesdrop or sneak a peek at personal diaries. That was just as true in generations past. But, kids, just to be on the safe side, it's probably best not to give mothers a reason to pry. You may never know how much she already knows.