private eyes

For parents of adolescents, balancing a child's desire for privacy with your own right to know what's going on is no easy feat.

Family Matters

October 19, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

By the time children hit sixth grade, they should probably be seen and heard, but must they be spied on?

Never has privacy been a bigger issue for parents of middle schoolers. From instant messaging on the Internet to private cell phones, preteens have more ways than ever to keep Mom and Dad out of the loop. And parents have seemingly never been more intent on monitoring their offspring -- and they've got the computer software and old-fashioned snoopiness to do it.

"I want to know everything they're doing and then I don't," says Carla Bohannan, an Annapolis mother of three whose youngest, Emily, is 11 years old. "As baby boomers, I know the things we did without our parents knowing. Now, we know. We know the things they could get involved in."

Child psychologists say it's perfectly normal for children to begin to crave privacy by age 11. They are taking the first steps toward independence and a healthy separation from parents. Telephone conversations get hushed. Descriptions of school days get a bit sketchy. The bedroom door stays shut in the evenings.

But it's also a vulnerable time. Sex, drugs and alcohol loom on the horizon. Lose touch with a child now, and the teen-age years ahead can look truly frightening.

"The world just seems to dictate that you watch children closer these days," says Peggy Peroutka, 44, a Cockeysville mother of three.

The media are filled with cautionary tales. Studies show that kids are more likely to become delinquent when their parents are uninvolved in their lives. In the summer movie Thirteen, a nice-girl middle-schooler turns wildly self-destructive while her well-meaning but harried single mom flounders, uncertain whether to clamp down or cozy up to her daughter.

Snooping or knowing

But when are parents closely monitoring their children and when are they snooping? Getting a nightly third-degree or reading private diaries or regularly searching rooms for contraband may be making as big a mistake. Such heavy-handed tactics can shut off lines of communication and undermine trust without revealing much, experts say.

"You may simply be compounding your problems," notes Margaret Sagarese, co-author of What Are You Doing in There? (Broadway Books, $14), a new book about privacy issues for 10- to 15-year-olds. "You can get the scoop on your child without snooping."

Sagarese, 54, a former teacher, says she decided to write a book on privacy because the issue has long fueled an "on and off war" between parents and tween-agers. Middle school can be an "excruciating period" for parents, and the problems associated with it seem to trump all others.

"When parents ask, 'Where are you going?' They hear, 'Nowhere,' " says Sagarese, an Islip, N.Y., mother of one. "Who are you going with? 'Nobody.' This is part of their modus operandi at this age. It doesn't mean they are up to no good, but it also doesn't mean you shouldn't supervise."

Pam Somerville, 51, of Stoneleigh, a stay-at-home mother of four girls, says she's just grateful that her youngest, a 13-year-old, will soon be leaving middle school behind.

There have been times when she's gone through their backpacks (to check on school work), read the inside of notebook covers (to see scribbled notes) and looked over their shoulders when they were on the computer sending e-mail to friends.

"The thing I resent most is what my kids have to deal with in terms of sex and drugs," she says. "I didn't know about half this stuff until college. It's really hard."

Get to know your child

Sagarese says the ideal solution is for parents to stay informed but not snoop. Keep tabs on your children -- list everyone's activities on a kitchen calendar, for instance. It's a device that can be "habitual but non-threatening," she says.

"You have to look at their world, knock on their door, and be invited in," says Sagarese. "Just look at the walls of your child's room to find their interests. The evidence of who they are and what they're interested in is all around."

Dr. John T. Walkup, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, agrees that the best parental supervision relies on watchfulness and not interrogation. If you're attuned to your child, he says, you don't need to constantly interview them.

"If you supervise well, you create a risk range. I know what my kid does, his interests, his friends. It's not intrusive, you just know," says Walkup. "You stand in your kid's shoes and see what they face every day. It doesn't require a lot of discussion. It's observing and analyzing. It's a cognitive skill, not an emotional one."

Yet too many parents don't supervise well, he adds. They either find their children so difficult to understand that they become overprotective and restrictive, or they prefer to remain oblivious and ignore the children unless obvious problems surface.

"The process of supervision never ends for a parent," says Walkup. "Human beings are pretty predictable. When the cat's away, the mice will play."

Time for vigilance

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