The other night, my daughter’s cellphone sat on the kitchen counter, repeatedly beeping as multiple text messages beckoned her attention. She was asleep in her room, unaware she had left her phone out. She normally guards it with her life, never leaving it accessible.
I hesitated but decided to pick up her phone and scroll through a few of her recent text messages, something I have never done before.
Earlier this summer, my daughter and a friend were caught sneaking out of my house one night. They were busted by intercepted text messages her friend’s mother discovered a week later. My daughter violated my trust, which takes time to earn back. Although the text messages I read revealed nothing alarming, I felt more confident that she is behaving and not going behind my back. I won’t do this again unless my trust is breached.
I do not feel guilty, nor do I feel as if I infringed on her right to privacy, although some parents may disagree with me. Plain and simple, in my opinion the privacy of a child or teen is a privilege and not a right, and one that should be respected and earned. Once that line is crossed, I feel a parent has justification to be inquisitive with the child’s email, phone, personal belongings and social media accounts, but only if the situation warrants it. I left my inquisition at the cellphone and have never pressed beyond that.
When parents are curious about what their kids are up to, it’s a natural inclination to want to push to find things out. If you have a teenager, you know that conversation is not always welcomed. When your child retreats into her cave and comes out only for fresh air and food, it’s hard to know the details of her day-to-day experiences. It’s not surprising that some parents may resort to going through the child’s bedroom, backpack, online accounts and more to get a glimpse at what she may be involved in.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends that parents sign up for the social networks their children use and monitor what they share and who they're friends with, part of the agency's guide to social networks for parents. However, a study of teens and their parents last year from TRUSTe and Lightspeed Research revealed that although 72 percent of parents report monitoring their teens' social media accounts, 80 percent of teens say they've used privacy settings to hide content from parents or certain friends.
Today, there are more modes of hiding communication than ever before. If your child really has the mindset to do so, she will. Nothing replaces establishing a relationship of honest communication and trust with our children, and invading privacy without reason can result in damaging this core value.
Parents always reserve the right to make that call, but it should be made with good reason. If you constantly make your kids feel as if you don’t trust them by searching through their personal space, spying or eavesdropping on them without probable cause, then it will likely brew resentment and rebellion.
Several websites offer contracts parents and children can sign to agree on privacy boundaries and exceptions. Sample guidelines from the company TeenBehaviorContracts.com, which sells a package of behavior contracts, parenting tools and a teen discipline program for $16.95, include rules for locking doors, listening to phone conversations, screening objects brought into the home, entering the bedroom when it's messy and communicating where the teen is going when she leaves. GetNetWise.org, a coalition of Internet corporations and public interest groups, offers a free Internet use agreement for parents and children with guidelines for online behavior.
However, if at any time a parent is concerned about the safety or well-being of their kids, they should pursue whatever is necessary to find out what they need to, starting with a direct conversation. It’s all about finding the right balance. I want my children to speak openly to me, so I always offer that option first.
One offense is not the end of the world and not to be unexpected. Wings are earned by demonstrating consistent good judgment and by being forthcoming and sharing information. The next time my daughter's cellphone beeps, I'll leave it for her to answer. I never made a good snoop anyway.