Sunday, June 5, 2011

Privacy and Trust in the Tween and Teen Years

My girls were talking to me about the rules and requirements that some of their friends live with. They told me of parents who read every text their child sends and parents who read every facebook message. Imagine for a moment that your children told you that they were going to read everything that you post of facebook, every text you sent, every private message, and every e-mail. Imagine your child reading every communication between you and your closest friends.

Or perhaps it's easier for you to imagine how would you feel if your spouse, partner or your own parents made you hand over your cell phone and computer at the end of the day so that they could see everything you had done. Can you tell me that you never need a space to vent? That you never have a day when something is going on with you and your spouse, or your child, that you need to talk about privately with a close friend? That you never have something to say to someone else in confidence?

Your children need that, too.

Two of my children have cell phones and all three of them have their own netbooks. They have friends all over the world and they communicate with them via texting, facebook, tumblr, skype and polyvore. I know this because they have talked to me about it, by choice, not because I have checked. I do not snoop. I do not use their computers without asking first and if they prefer that I not use their computers, I don't. If they leave their computer sitting on the couch with tabs open I don't glance over to see what they have been doing. As far as cell phones, I don't know how to use one so I wouldn't know how to read their texts.

Before you start leaving comments about how irresponsible I am, let me assure you that my children know about using safe search, and that there are icky people on the internet, they know that it's not a good idea to post their full name or address anywhere, they understand that clicking on some links can infect their computer with a virus or take them to places they aren't ready to go. But more than the knowledge of internet safety, my children and I have a relationship based on trust. They can trust me not to snoop  and I trust them to let me know if they have concerns when they are out and about in cyber-land.  If they are not sure if something is a good idea they may ask my opinion, though usually I don't know much more than they do so we may research together or talk about the trust worthiness of a specific site.

Parents who snoop through their children's communications without their children's knowledge, and parents who require full access to their children's cell phone and computers, will tell you that it's for their child's own good. They will tell you that they are doing it to keep their child safe. They will tell you that it's their right as a parent to know what is going on in their child's life.

What do parents gain by intruding on their child's friendships and personal communication? Sometimes I wonder if the parent's primary reason really is to protect their child or if it's more because they can't stand not knowing every little detail about their child's life, or their need to feel in control. The reality is that the more parents snoop and the more they intrude, the more the child is going to hide and find sneaky ways of doing things under their parents' radar. Whatever parents hope to gain by intruding they lose a whole lot more, they lose their child's trust.

As your children get older, and by that I mean the tween years through the teen years, approximately ages 10 through 17, they increasingly need their own space. They are expanding their explorations of who they are and how they fit into the world. They need space and privacy to figure things out. They need to be able to write stories that you never read, to text or tweet how they are really feeling and the chance to dream about the future with their friends with no adults present. They need your trust and support, not invasion of their privacy.

Did you ever do things your parents didn't know about when you were younger? Did your parents ever forbid you from doing something that you found a way to do anyway? Did you sneak out at night? Smoke cigarettes or drink beer with your friends?

Do you think that your children aren't smart enough to find ways to get around your rules and restrictions? I know kids with secret facebook accounts, and most kids know how to clear a browser history. If you really want to keep your child safe you need to have a relationship based on trust. You need to have a real relationship based on respect and partnership. If you are snooping and checking and demanding access you can be sure that your child will find ways to avoid detection. The more your child feels the need to hide things from you the greater the chance that your child will get into a bad situation that you don't know about. The more distance there is between you and your child the greater the chance that someone will prey upon your child, using that distance to their advantage.

I've never controlled what my children do on the internet. Because of that my children don't need look at things at a friend's house that they can't see at home, they don't need secret accounts where a predatory adult may start gaining their trust. If you think I'm naive because you just know my children have done and seen things on the internet that I don't know about then you're missing the point. Of course my children have done and seen things on the internet that I don't know about. As they get older they gradually expand their exposure to topics relating to sex and relationships, as they are comfortable, as they feel ready. It's not about my comfort level, it's not up to me to decide what they are ready to view. They need room to explore things without me looking over their shoulder. I'm here if they want to talk about things they've read or seen, but that's up to them as well.

Didn't you do the same thing when you were a young teenager? Maybe you secretly read romance novels or headed over to a friend's house to look at pictures of naked women in a magazine. Perhaps you got into an R rated movie with an older friend or sibling.

Children in the tween and teen years need space and privacy. It's part of their process. They need to spend hours in their room alone or with friends. Not only do they need privacy so they can talk to their friends about their lives and your parenting, their friends may also desperately need to be able to talk to your child in confidence about their own life, relationships and parents. When we demand to know everything they say and do we create a disconnect. When we intrude on their personal communications we give them reason to be angry, hurt and distrustful. When we have a relationship build on trust, and as a part of that we respect our children's privacy and their need for space, our relationship with them grows closer and more peaceful. With all the complaining I hear about tweens and teens it seems to me that every parent would be interested in a closer, more trusting and more peaceful relationship with their older child. It may seem to good to be true, but it is possible and it depends upon you, not your child.


  1. My 17 year old son gives me full access to all of his social media accounts and actually WANTS me to screen contacts for him. We have had problems of inappropriate people- adults- trying to contact him on his accounts and I was able to interject. I of course made him aware of it. My son is an unschooler and has total freedom in his life. I also ask his permission before looking at any of his communications. However, we enjoy such a close and connected relationship that he doesn't have anything online to hide from me. When I was a teen, I did not enjoy the freedom and parental connection that he enjoys with me so yes, I was completely secretive, sneaky and lived an underground life from my family. Attachment Parented unschoolers have no need to do this.