Protective Surveillance…Of Our Children?

Since the revelations about widespread government monitoring of all forms of communications in the name of national security, a protest has erupted about invasion of privacy.  The questions raised are about the tradeoffs between security and privacy, and what is the necessary balance.  Over the past several weeks, I have been asked how I think this question relates to parents and children, and I have been asking this question of parents themselves.

This is a troubling question for parents – especially for parents of teenagers.  Mothers I have talked with reject the idea of “spying” on their kids, which is what it feels like if they look into Facebook pages or various kinds of communications without permission.  On the other hand, there is a feeling that this may be necessary if you think a child may be getting into trouble, and it would be justified at that point.  In other words, mothers don’t like the idea of spying on their children, but would if they had to in order to protect them.

Teen age behavior has long been a source of concern to parents at a time when youngsters search for their own identity and look to their peers, seeming to want space from their parents.  Joking references to “Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing,” reflect the experience of parents with children’s wish for privacy.  There can be a struggle from early childhood on between children’s wish for independence and parents’ need to supervise and protect them.  But many parents see ours as a particularly difficult time to raise children because technology has opened the world to them in ways that are difficult to control.  Parents are as concerned about protecting children from themselves – from their own immature revelations or photographs in the social media – as they are about what they might be led into by others.

There are no simple answers to the question of whether a parent should invade children’s privacy in order to keep them safe, but there are things we can think about.  So much depends on the particular parent and child – especially the relationship that exists between them.  Undoubtedly, reading a child’s communications without his or her knowledge or permission is a breach of trust. And many parents feel they would do this only if they already question the degree of trust they can have in their child.  

Trust is a two way street in which parents trust that children will respect their wishes, while children are in effect asking parents to trust that they will and not check up on them.  They are asking for a degree of freedom and independence from parental supervision; but parents and children may disagree about what that degree should be.  One mother said her children were told by her not to expect any privacy in their use of social media.  She has all their passwords, but has never used them.  Yet her children know that she could, and she believes that in itself is a check on their behavior.  She believes that their access to technology is a privilege, not a right.

Parents may disagree about how much to trust a child before they feel the need to secretly invade his or her privacy.  But in large part this really depends on knowing your own child.  Although there is a general feeling that there is a lot out there for parents to worry about, when that concern becomes a need to start checking, the implication is that something in a child’s behavior is worrisome. The question is, why can’t that concern be shared with one’s child directly?

The answer to that question, and the larger one of trust, really begins early in childhood.  Children learn to behave the way we want them to because they want our approval.  Of course, even as two year olds they will be defiant at times as they begin to assert themselves in the reach for independence.  The way in which we respond to them, showing understanding of their needs and wishes even when they can’t be met, plays a big part in how they learn to accept and respect our wishes.  They learn, too, that they will be corrected but accepted, despite their transgressions.

Establishing this kind of relationship early on is what can make possible a more open kind of communication between parent and child later on, and can be the basis of trust.  There is no doubt that doing something your parents don’t approve of, or that is against the rules, carries some excitement with it and children do try that out.  It is also true that adolescents are not yet mature enough always to know when something that may be fun may also be trouble.

As parents, we have both the responsibility as well as the wish to protect our children.  But we can also do this by establishing clearly our expectations, the ground rules we may set for our children’s use of social media, and for their behavior generally.  As when they were little, we can show understanding of what they would like, but be sure they understand our wishes as well.  Part of that understanding is that we talk to them directly if we have reason to be concerned.

President Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.”  Let’s try to get the verification first from our children themselves.     


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