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Parental Responsibility Trumps Child’s Privacy

crackberries, blackberry, technology, cell_phone, work, communication, businessTo: Marybeth

From: Message-reading Mom

My daughter’s smartphone buzzed when she was out of the room. I picked it up to see who was texting her and was puzzled by the message that previewed on the screen, so I read the entire exchange. What I discovered concerned me. When I talked to her about it, she turned the tables on me and said I’d invaded her privacy. The issue I discovered is important and I don’t want to lose the chance to guide her behavior, but now we’re arguing only about privacy and whether I trust her. How much privacy should I allow my daughter?

To: Messenger

From: Marybeth

How much privacy you allow depends on the child and the record of trust she has built, but your minor child’s privacy is not an entitlement. Parental responsibility for our children means we have the right to know what’s going on. That’s the only way we can guide and teach them.

Beyond that general principal, Rule No. 1 about communicating in the digital age is: There’s no such thing as privacy. The message exchange you read may have been intended for your daughter and her friend, but the friend could easily have taken a screen shot of that message and sent it elsewhere. That’s why it’s so crucial that children understand that technology can be manipulated by anyone who wants to violate their intended privacy.

If you read the text exchange because you were already suspicious that something was up, say so and remind her that you reserve the right to go looking for information when you believe she may be hiding something that could endanger her or someone else (think sex, drug use, covering for others, etc.). This means you may read her texts, see her social media pages and check her phone records.

If you read her message inadvertently or out of curiosity, say you didn’t go snooping and you weren’t worried about her, but you are now. Your glimpse into her friendship raised an issue that you can’t ignore, even if the manner in which you learned of it annoys her.

Kids are quick to back their parents into a corner with the accusation, “You don’t trust me,” as though you are bound to prove that you do. Don’t fall for it. In our house, the answer is, “Of course I do. I trust that you’re a teenager and you’ll make your share of mistakes.” The important thing is not to stay focused on her sense of indignation over her lost privacy, but rather on the concern you now have about the situation you discovered.

This episode is an important reminder that parents should be vigilant, especially when we put the means to greater freedom into our children’s hands by way of a cellular device. Freedom is an important factor in developing responsibility, but it’s also the avenue to poor choices, even risky ones.

What your daughter calls invading her privacy I would call parenting, though progressive parenting specialists might disagree with me. Some say teens deserve privacy and the respect it conveys, just as an adult would. I would argue that the risks of respecting a teen’s privacy are greater than the risk of hurting her pride by inserting yourself into her life.

The key is to foster a relationship in which your teen knows she can talk to you about anything, even things that are difficult. When you respond to unsettling information calmly and demonstrate the maturity you want your teen to emulate, you create the environment for transparency.

Trust is earned and rewarded with freedom, responsibility and yes — privacy. But it’s not an entitlement until that teen is on her own and living as an independent adult.


Marybeth Hicks is a columnist for The Washington Times and founder and editor of Ontheculture.com.


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  • bauerfam

    Right on!

  • aeroblast

    You don’t say what the disturbing subject was so I am a little in the dark. I will say that in working with the scouts I have seen a lot of parents that are so concerned about their kids that they will not let them make any mistakes. The problem with that is that they also do not let them grow. If this is a legitimate safety concern by all means confront the situation aggressively. If this is only an annoyance to you or a preference difference from your belief system, quietly monitor the situation and let your child work it out. Better that they fail when you are there to catch them rather that later when the consequences are greater and the support is less.

  • april 30th: As I tried to read this article, things keep popping up at the bottom of my screen – does anyone else have this problem? Is there any way to turn off these pop ups that cover the whole bottom of my screen??? it’s very annoying and makes it hard to read an article …