I Tried the New Family Setup Feature on Apple Watch & Here’s What I Really Think

The pandemic has been hard on parents, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also been really hard on kids: not only have they had to adjust to unique school experiences, they’ve also lost a lot of the freedoms they’ve had to just…well…play. I never thought an Apple Watch would be a way to give my kid some of that freedom and independence back but I recently tried one out and I’m here to say: this thing is the bomb. Let me explain…

Three main things have changed dramatically in our lifestyle in the last year:

1) After nearly a year of school closures, our district reopened elementary schools.

School hours and how and where parents pick kids up is quite different than non-COVID times. In addition to school changes, this year my son is a Crossing Guard/Patrol, which means that every two weeks his afterschool schedule changes. I work full time (I’m the Managing Editor for Red Tricycle, obtw) and have a lot on my plate, so his schedule changing can throw things off for me, like meeting times and deadlines.

Plus, parents are essentially not allowed in the school unless it’s an absolute emergency. Running late? Your kid is waiting for you outside (they will bring the kids in if it’s super cold). And with the added responsibility of Patrol, his pickup time changes slightly depending on how many kids are crossing, how fast he checks in his equipment, etc. In short, the time is a little different EVERY. DAY.

2) We live in Minnesota, so “afterschool/outside school activities” means hockey. The “no parents” rule is similar for hockey practices and even most games. Parents are only allowed in the rinks if you need to help your kid get his gear on (my son is a goalie, so he still needs a little assist sometimes). You just drop them off outside or come in at the very last minute if they need help. This is very different than years past, where hockey culture frequently includes parents hanging out and helping out at practice (at least at this younger age).

3) Grandma moved into town.

I don’t believe my son is old enough to have a phone (he’s in 4th grade) but increasingly we found that we wanted him to be able to let us know when he was ready to go. He also started asking if he could walk to (his now fully vaccinated) Grandma’s house after school sometimes.

WALK?? ALONE??? I don’t consider myself to be a helicopter parent, and we live in a pretty safe community, but I also listen to a lot of true crime podcasts and occasionally panic about horrible potential scenarios. How do you balance that line between fear and teaching your kids fear, between safety and independence?

As it happened, right around this time of internal, moral debate, Apple Watch reached out to me to see if I could try the Family Setup feature. So they sent a (loaner) Apple Watch for us to try and, honestly, it really was transformative.

Features I Love the Most

Schooltime: From my phone I can set Schooltime hours, which makes the Apple Watch essentially only functional as time-piece during those hours. It does still track activity, but the majority of the features on the Watch go dormant. They can be accessed only temporarily during schooltime, for such things as emergency text or updates, but overall are “disabled” allowing for fewer distractions.

I was hesitant to send him to school with this watch on, but was actually thrilled to hear that my son’s teacher didn’t even notice he was wearing an Apple Watch: this meant it was not a distraction in class for him or anyone else.

Texting & Calls: As the parent, you control the contact list entirely. This is critical. With Family Setup your child cannot add any contacts to their list on their own. It is all controlled by the parent. I added friends and relatives we trust, not just for emergencies but so he could keep in touch on his own. He’s an only child, so having a cousin to “chat” with now and again is a lifeline.

He can also text via WiFi, but we found calls didn’t work great on WiFi to non-Apple numbers. You’ll want to add the Apple Watch to your cellular plan, which typically sets you back about $10/month when tacked onto an existing plan.

Emergency contacts are also an option: whomever you put on for emergency contacts can be contacted and called for under one minute without requiring a cellular plan.

Handwashing: There is actually a tracking device that shows if the kids have washed their hands long enough! WUT!

So, for the first time in his life, my son walked a few blocks on his own to his Grandma’s apartment after school. And, yes, I was using the tracking feature to see where he was.

Features My Son Loved the Most

I asked my son what his favorite parts of the watch are, beyond having more independence and he, like the kid he is, said:

I like the activity tracker. It’s fun to try to have a goal to reach for activity and get rewards when you complete certain things. There’s a cool planetary alignment feature where you can track the movement of the planets. And I like the easy communication with my family. Today, my dad was late picking me up and I was able to text both my parents, “Where are you?” Also, Memojis are cool. You can even have your Memoji wear a mask.

Calls and texts with family and friends: My mom put people like my grandma, aunts and uncles and even my cousins in California, on my contact list so I can check in with them sometimes without having to make a call on. my mom’s phone.


We’ll reluctantly send back this trial Apple Watch and I have to say, we’re putting it on the birthday wishlist now. Just a few weeks giving this new Family Setup a try and we are happy to see how much it’s allowed us to stay in touch, but not too in touch with a device that doesn’t distract with lots of screen-time. Unlike a phone, this watch isn’t heavy on the screen/game features (there are some) which for us is a win. Yes, the price-tag is higher than what you’d consider for a kid, but I do think it’s actually worth paying for, and the cost to add it to our plan is way more affordable than adding an additional line. Definitely worth considering for any parent who wants the right balance between freedom and worry.

Family Setup is supported in Apple Watch Series 4 or later with cellular, including the new Apple SE

Learn more at apple.com/watch

Special thanks to Apple for loaning us a watch to try out! All opinions expressed here are my own. 

—photos and words by Amber Guetebier



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