Looking for password to their hearts, in their diaries

April 18, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

My son the computer hacker broke into his sister's files and discovered the "TOP SECRET DALLAS COWGIRLS CLUB," printed copies and waved them under her nose with a promise to pass them out to his friends.

"If the boys come back, we come out and ride bikes and start teasing them," Joseph read aloud from his sister's documents. "We run to the fort and start threatening them with a jump rope. And say Whitneys name is Corey and pretend my name is Elizbeth. And we say we might move to Florida."

Jessie cocked her fingers like talons and went after him with her nails, shrieking that this was her private business.

My son the computer hacker has secret files, too, but they are protected by his password and only he can read them. But he is careless, and he left a diary entry on the computer screen and I, well, sort of glanced at it in a reading kind of way.

When he realized his mistake and how vulnerable it had left him, he came to me soberly and said, "Mom, I won't get mad if you tell me the truth. But did you read my journal?"

After asking him what he meant by "reading," I broke down and confessed.

"Mom," he said, gravely disappointed, "that was my private business."

My friend Bill, a lawyer and a father of four, said he could get me off on a legal technicality called "plain view." But, he said, "if you consider what you were doing as out-and-out snooping, you need to rethink your relationship with your child."

I wasn't suspicious, I said defensively. I was curious. My children are very good at telling me what they think I want to hear or what they think I should know. But I badly want an unfiltered look into their little lives, into their hearts.

Into their private business.

About the time they start closing the bathroom door on you, your children recognize the concept of "privacy," and they will only want more of it.

At first, you think their little secret lives are adorable. But soon their incessant yakking will dwindle to muttered monosyllables and you will wonder and worry.

Eager for any information, you will listen to their conversations in the car pool after they have forgotten you are driving or overhear their chatter behind a closed bedroom door. You might sneak a peak at diaries, read the notes left in the pocket of their jeans, listen for just a split second before you hang up the extension.

And you could do more. Swab down their bedroom for drug residue, tap your own phones, plant matchbox-sized cameras in their rooms. Advertisements for these tools are now directed at the fearful, suspicious parent.

"A child has a right to expect a reasonable amount of privacy," said Bill, the lawyer-dad. "He or she should expect that when a mother goes in to pick up the room or deliver clothes that she will not pull open every drawer and snoop around.

"If you have a relationship with your child that is so bad that you have to do all those things, then you have failed. You have to maintain an open relationship, and then you don't need that."

However, the amount of privacy a parent grants a child appears to be in direct proportion to the level of that parent's fear. Right now, I am just interested to know what my kids are thinking.

Soon enough, they will be teens, and I will not know the boy who keeps calling. I will not understand why they want to spend so much time at the mall. I will feel whipsawed by their moods.

Where will I draw the line then?

"I find that whatever line I draw, I cross, so I try not to draw lines anymore," said a woman friend.

"Theoretically, I believe kids should have their privacy. But if I am worried, it's my responsibility to find out. I won't like doing it and I will feel guilty, but it is my job to protect them," she said.

"You use clues -- grades, friends, eating habits -- and then you do what you have to do to find out what is wrong."

At what point does the crisis you perceive equal the risk of spying? If you get caught, your relationship will fracture. And no matter what you learn while snooping, it will be so different from the side he chooses to show you that you will feel like someone has sucked the air out of the room.

"Things change when you hit fifth grade," said my son's computer journal. "But I think I will probably always love my mom and dad."

What will his journal say when he is 15? And will I try to read it?

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