Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spying on Your Teen: Privacy and Parenting


I always said I'd do it, if I felt it was necessary. In fact, when Sisi leaves the house, I sometimes say: "Act like I'm right there with you, because you never know when I'm going to show up." But I'd never done it... until yesterday.

Lately, Sisi, my high school freshman, has been calling me right after school saying "I'm going to stay after in the library... with my friends." At first, I thought "Great, she's going to get some studying in or work on that English paper." No problem.

Except the English grade was in the toilet-- "D" in an Honors class!-- and most of the other grades weren't all that exciting either. The low grades suggested one of two things: (1) she wasn't actually spending her afternoons in the library; or (2) there was more "hanging with my friends" than school work going on-- which means there needs to be an adjustment in the study routine.

How to determine what is really going on? Nothing like a "drop-in," right?

Or wrong?

The question of teen privacy is one that is much debated. There are parents who firmly believe that searching a teen's room, checking their text messages and showing up uninvited when they go out is the height of infringement. How can a young adult develop, learn to trust their own judgment and have confidence in their own decision with the fear of a parent helicoptering into their lives all the time? What does that say about the level of trust between parent and child? This view is teen-centered and puts the child's need to develop independence above the parent's need for information.

And of course, in the other camp are those parents who argue that, much as teen children might think they have the capacity to make adult decisions, they are, indeed, still children. And since they are children, parents have an obligation and a duty to monitor their conduct for safety and security reasons and to maintain awareness about what's happening in their lives. This puts the parents' need for information about the child's need for independence.

To be honest, I have always thought of myself as a parent in the second camp-- especially for a young teen, like my daughter. Fourteen is still quite young, and I have always said that the need to protect children outweighs all other considerations. Of course, that was before I had a teenaged daughter.

I see it differently now... or rather, I'm less certain and more conflicted about it.

I see, for instance, how much confidence young people get from opportunities to experience themselves without a hovering parent. I see leaps in maturity and decision-making. I see a young woman learning how to handle herself-to trust her instincts-- in an uncertain world.

But I also see the immaturity of those decisions from time to time. I see the misplaced priorities of using freedom to "have fun" at the expense of obligations like choir rehearsals, homework, studying for tests and honoring curfews. I see the temptations of peer pressure.

Just two weeks ago, on Ssturday afternoon, I gave Sisi permission to visit the county library with friends--with strict instructions for her to come home at a certain time because we had evening plans as a family. Not only did she miss the curfew, but her friends had talked her into leaving the library and going to fast-food restaurant a few blocks away to hang out. I might not have known about it except that her attendance at this family outing was expected, and since she had missed her curfew we now needed to pick her up on the way to the event. She had to confess that she wasn't at the Library anymore.

That mistake cost her a week of freedom.

It's also the reason I decided I needed to follow up on my threat to "show up" unexpectedly today when she used the "library card"-- pun intended.

And there she was, sitting quietly at a table with her books out, head down, working. Her friends were nowhere in sight. My daughter was quietly doing her homework, just like she said she was.

I tiptoed out before she ever saw me, feeling both proud of her and a little ashamed of myself. Maybe, a little more trust and a little less "helicoptering" is in order here. I found myself reviewing the whole library/fastfood curfew decision. Had I over-reacted? Or was my child sitting quietly in the library as explained right now because of getting caught somewhere else last time?

None of this is as easy or as clear as I once would have thought.

It does seem clear to me now, however, that I want to avoid extremes on either side of the parenting/privacy fence... which leaves me with a sort of Reagan-era policy of "trust but verify" double-speak. What does that mean exactly? I didn't know in the Reagan-era... and I don't know now.

I had intended to keep my little spying mission a secret, but my 5 year old (who was with me on the excursion) outed me at the dinner table. "We went to the library and saw Sisi!" she told Daddy proudly.

Sisi wasn't mad. "I felt like I was being watched!" she said, laughing. "You were there?"

I confessed. I told why and what I saw and why I left.

"I was finishing a make-up paper for English," she said. "The teacher said if I did a good job, I could bring my grade up." She gave me a searching look. "You really came to the library?"

I nodded.

"Wow." Then she just stared at me for a really long time.

Like I said, I feel conflicted...but it's done now. Operation "Trust But Verify" is underway, for good or ill... just in time for this weekend's Halloween festivities.


  1. I don't have teen-agers, but I don't think I'll have any trouble spying. Maybe the next time her friends says let's go somewhere else, she will stay put.

  2. I say you did good, mommy.