My mother was an incorrigible spy. She would read my notes, listen in on phone conversations, and insist upon meeting all of my friends. Once, when I was sixteen, she rummaged through my dresser drawers, under the pretense of putting away laundry, and found my secret stash of two cigarettes. She threatened to ground me until I was 30.
Mom never admitted to “spying.” She called it “monitoring” and said it was her parental responsibility to do whatever was necessary to keep her children safe.
For today’s kids, freedom is still an important issue. They crave it. They need it. But parents must decide when and how to give it. The problem: the line between what’s too much and what’s too little can be fuzzy at times. If children aren’t supervised carefully, they can get into trouble. The world is a dangerous place, and kids are naturally curious. On the other hand, when parents spy too much, they may run the risk of alienating their children.
There is no simple answer to the question: How much freedom should parents give? But one thing is certain: Kids will always want more freedom than they can handle.
When parents concentrate more on teaching responsibility, the question of “How much freedom?” usually answers itself. The more responsible kids prove themselves to be, the more freedom they are entitled to.
But when parents discover any evidence that endangers children’s health or well-being–cigarettes, liquor bottles, drugs, stolen items, failing test grades–parents have a responsibility to take action. A child’s right to privacy must give way to a parent’s right to be informed.
Sometimes the warning signs are obvious; sometimes they are subtle. Here’s how to gather intelligence on your children without feeling like a spy.
Keep an eye on them. Know who your children’s friends are and make contact with their parents.
Pay attention to conversations between your kids and their friends. Children often share revealing information about themselves even when parents are in the room.
Establish basic rules of behavior. Tell your kids where you stand on issues such as drugs, smoking, drinking, sex, shoplifting, and truancy. Make it clear that you will not snoop as long as everything seems okay. But if you do become concerned, you will find out what’s going on, including searching their rooms. Parents don’t need to apologize when their concerns lead them to invade their children’s privacy.
Become media-literate. Kids and technology can be a dangerous mix. Know what TV shows, movies, computer games, music, social-networking sites, etc. your children enjoy.
Be a familiar face at school. Get to know the teachers, principal, guidance counselor, and listen to what they have to say. In my experience as a middle-school teacher, I have never known a troubled child who didn’t send out warning signals: aggressive or violent behaviors, destructive friendships, and on-going disrespect to authority figures. However, I have known many parents of troubled children who refused to acknowledge their children’s difficulties.
Be respectful of your children’s need for privacy. Wanting some solitude and space to explore their thoughts is all part of the growth process. By adolescence, children want to make their own plans, think their own thoughts, choose their own friends. This time period is an important milestone to maturity.
Children have to take healthy risks and make mistakes. How much and how soon depends on age, emotional maturity, and how they have handled responsibilities in the past. For example, if your adolescent has handled the demands of school, sports, and family chores in a consistently responsible way, you may consider extending curfew an extra 30 minutes for special occasions. The more trust your youngsters deposit, the more freedom they can withdraw.
In this age of materialism, many children’s bedrooms are overstocked with the latest computers, TVs, DVDs, IPODs, video games, and phones. But what our children really need is to be connected to parents who have strong values and who can be positive role models for them.
Sources: “Early Adolescence and Closing the Loop of Responsibility.” Carl Pickhardt, PhD. Psychology Today .com, 11/1/2010. “I Love You–Now Go Away: The Push and Pull of Life with Teens.” Margery D. Rosen. Family Circle.com, 11/2010.