I Snoop On My Kids Because I Can
When I was a teenager—back in the Paleolithic era, natch—there were no cellphones. There was no texting, and so when we wanted to ignore our parents at home and talk to our friends, we did so on the telephone. (Preferably one that had a really long cord so that you could get as far away from other family members as possible. Yeah, no such thing as cordless back then, either. They were dark times.) During school, if you wanted to ignore what was happening in class and talk to your friends without getting into trouble, you wrote notes. Said notes could sometimes be passed during class time, but more often (at least for me) I would be writing a note to someone not in that class, and the exchange would happen in the hallway, between classes.
One of my friends and I swapped a comic, of sorts, back and forth on a regular basis during our years together in high school. She was the Toweled Avenger (named for the towel she occasionally wore as a cape; no, I don’t remember how that started), and I was her faithful sidekick, Tumbleweed (named for my unfortunate hair; this was back before us curly girls knew what to do with our mops). As a couple of relative nobodies at our school, our crude illustrations and plot lines chronicled the various ways in which popular kids and unpopular teachers would end up bowing down to our intellectual prowess and creative methods of revenge for various perceived injustices. I seem to recall that there was also a dog named Killer who lived up to his name on a regular basis. The Toweled Avenger and Tumbleweed favored arson, murder, public shaming, and sometimes, heavy artillery. Their enemies didn’t just end up dead, they suffered in the process.
This was before Columbine, before Sandy Hook, before violent fantasies were assumed to be harbingers of unthinkable actions.
In “real life,” my friend and I were both decent students, “normal” kids who followed most of the rules and probably appeared unremarkable to others. Neither of us would have hurt a fly, and the idea of a rabid dog who could take down a hated teacher on command was an entertaining story, but hardly an action plan. We were just blowing off steam.
We were also, I think, both pretty depressed… not that either of us had the emotional maturity or insight to recognize that, at the time.
I saved all of our notes—organized in 3-ring binders, along with my journals—for years and years. The last time I moved, when I remarried and relocated, I finally let them go. In looking them over before the big toss, I had an odd moment of young me/older me juxtaposition, where I could appreciate the humor we saw in our creations at the time, yes, but I also had a maternal stab of, “Oh, we were so, so unhappy.”
Did our parents know we were unhappy?
I don’t know. Maybe they knew some of it. I wouldn’t say they were oblivious, but I think none of them realized how bad it was. Would seeing those notes have changed anything? I can’t even venture a guess. It was a different time. Both of us turned out okay as adults, so maybe it’s a moot point.
Nowadays, notes like that have gone the way of the dinosaur. Teens text each other, chat on Facebook, etc. Paper is passe! And just as I stuffed those notes into my jeans pockets or in the bottom of my backpack because they were private, my teens want their dealings with their friends to be just theirs, away from prying eyes of us insufferable parents who could never possibly understand them. My older teen, in particular, will often complain bitterly about how her friends don’t have the kinds of rules we do, so-and-so’s parents don’t even know she has Facebook, and so-and-so texts all night, sometimes, and why are we so strict and when does she get privacy?
Prioritizing your snooping activities
It’s not winning me any popularity contests, but that’s not the point; I believe that privacy is an entitlement of maturity, and it’s earned over time. Along with that, I believe that boundaries help shape better choices. So that means we have parental controls on our centrally-located computer. That means cellphones are turned in every night before bed. That means I have passwords to all accounts. That means sometimes I’m going to spot-check the texts on your phone, because I paid for it and technically, it belongs to me. That means that if I’m worried about you, I’m going to check up on you. My teens may see it as snooping. I don’t care. I’m very clear with them about it because it’s never my intention to be sneaky: I have access, and I will use it if I have concerns. If I don’t have concerns, probably I won’t. But I might, you never know. Maybe conduct yourself accordingly, just in case.
You know how it’s often suggested to tell kids “never put anything online that you wouldn’t be okay with your mother reading?” Yeah, well, my kids know there’s a pretty good chance I’ll actually read it.
As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. I don’t invade my kids’ privacy constantly and then harangue them about what I find; that would be a recipe for disaster. If life seems to be going well, the occasional spot-check is all I’ll do. Even if I’m checking more often, I am judicious about what I choose to address. You know what? Sometimes my kids swear or otherwise use language that doesn’t thrill me when talking to their peers. Maybe they’re engaging in petty dramas. Those things aren’t worth a confrontation. But sometimes I find something that suggests unsafe behavior and/or genuine crisis, and that needs to be addressed. Does that mean fury over me “prying” into their lives? Maybe. Again, I’ll take the anger if it means intervening for their wellbeing.
I only get 18 years to get these kids ready to run their own lives. I’m not willing to give them absolute privacy when their frontal lobes aren’t fully formed and they’re still legal minors. If that makes me a snoop? Sorry, I’m not the least bit sorry.