How Much Privacy for a Tween/Teen?
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
Here’s one that just cropped up in my house: How much privacy is a tween/teen entitled to? Can I toss her room when I strongly suspect some missing item (her phone, her brother’s recorder) is buried in that pigsty? Or should I practice the respect for privacy that I am trying to teach my children to have for others?
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll open this by letting you know that “S” is a real-life friend of mine, though she really did submit this question. I’ve known her kids for a long time, and the one I happen to know she’s referring to here is one we sometimes joke is the long-lost twin of one of my own kids. I will try to resist answering this based on what I know of this particular child, though, and stick to generalities.
It was about two years ago when I first wrote this column about my utter lack of remorse in snooping on my own children. (The responses, by the way, were fascinating. There was a lot of solidarity from other parents and one angry response from someone I assume to be a teen, plus a cautionary tale from an adult about an unprovoked snooping which ruined a relationship. Lots of interesting perspectives in there.) What I said back then is still my mantra in this area: Privacy is an entitlement of maturity, and it’s earned over time. Is any minor child living under my roof on my dime going to have absolute privacy and autonomy? Nope. It’s simply not going to happen, and I’m very clear with my children about that.
The previous post was about digital snooping, mostly (which is a different beast from physical, in-person privacy). I do want to point out, though, that at the time of that writing, I still had my kids’ email accounts set up on my phone for ease of spot-checking, and now that my oldest is closer to 18 than 17—and has stepped up in terms of responsibility and self-management—that’s no longer the case. I have her passwords, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I thought it was warranted, but in the absence of worry, I have no reason to encroach on her privacy. Therein lies the key: at the risk of sounding like an acting coach, the questions to ask are: What’s my motivation? and What are the expectations?
Snooping for the sake of curiosity is something you can perhaps justify when your kids are very little, but it’s a huge no-no in terms of trust and boundaries as soon as your child is aware of a need for privacy, and I’d say that starts as young as about age 5 or 6. I am opposed to violating privacy for this reason, obviously. On the other hand, snooping because you’re worried or there is a specific lost item you’re trying to find is, in my mind, a reasonable motivation. You have a goal in mind (resolving concern or finding what’s missing), and that supersedes any reasonable expectation of privacy.
This brings us back to the second question about expectations. Back in the digital snooping post, I was very clear that my kids knew I had access to their accounts and understood that I might do spot-checks or otherwise log in and look around if I was concerned. I wasn’t hiding that from them; part of building that responsibility and honoring their selfhood is being very honest with them about my expectations and possible ramifications if I felt their behavior wasn’t up to agreed-upon standards. I think most parents set an expectation—overtly or tacitly—with their children that their rooms are “theirs” and that space will not be infringed upon. Just as with the digital spaces our kids inhabit, I think that’s a good and fair expectation to a point. Your child’s room may be hers, but it’s still in your house, and you get some say over what happens there or you reserve the right to cross that invisible boundary to rectify issues as you see fit, because you’re the adult.
So, for example, in our house—after years of back and forth on various issues—the rules for kids’ rooms are pretty simple: No food. No visible garbage (pick it up!). I won’t harangue anyone daily but I do expect that each weekend the laundry is picked up and things are tidied a little. I reserve the right to call for a major clean-out any time I see fit (usually once a year for my son, maybe once a quarter for my daughter), but I will give notice (it’s never “Get in here and clean this right now!” but maybe a week’s notice of a deadline) and I always offer to help. Parents do not enter rooms without knocking. Siblings knock and wait for admittance. It is very rare for me to enter a kid room when the kids aren’t home, but they know it’s a possibility if I need to retrieve something and they further know I will never just randomly dig through their stuff. That said, just as with their digital space, if I have just cause for concern, all bets are off. (For whatever it’s worth, I haven’t done a room snoop for years. I simply reserve the right.) These are the rules my kids know.
All of that said, here’s what I’d say about your particular situation. S, you have to first figure out what rules your kids are operating under, either by direct statement or assumption. Does the child in question believe her room is sacred and any “tossing” of it, as you say, would be a direct violation of that? Have you had any discussions about parental room access in the case of missing items? It sounds to me (and I may be wrong) that there are two separate issues here—in one case (her phone) the item is merely misplaced because her room is a mess; in the other case (her brother’s recorder), you are concerned she took something and hid it. Those are two very different situations, although I still maintain that figuring out the pre-existing expectations of room privacy is your first priority.
For both cases, this is a very good time to talk about her rights to keep her room the way she wants it (messy, one assumes) vs. your rights to search her room. I would posit that if her room is tidy you are much less likely to feel the need to investigate when something is missing. So maybe you’ll agree that her slovenliness isn’t the hill you choose to die on, but then she has to understand that if that’s how she chooses to treat her space, you will have greater rights to investigate because there’s no reasonable way for her to know what’s where when everything is such a mess. Make sense? This gives her back some of the power to decide what’s important to her. If keeping you out of her room is truly a priority, she’s going to have to step up her efforts to keep her space more in line with your expectations. (A quick note here, too: Always offer to assist with a clean-out. Lots of disorganized kids don’t really enjoy the mess, they simply find getting organized overwhelming. My kids are both much more willing to clean even if I just sit in the room with them and do some verbal coaching. We take the same approach as they use on Hoarders and start with three piles: Trash, Keep, and Donate.)
In the case of the phone, I assume you’re paying for it, so you have a choice to make, here. Either she needs to find it (or allow you to look for it) or you can simply dock her either money or privileges until it’s produced. Base your choice on the end goal—is this about her room, about responsibility, about attitude…? I don’t know the answer to that. In the case of the recorder, I would simply proceed as emotion-neutrally as possible, not even addressing any possible misdeed (for now), but clarifying that there is so much stuff in there, the recorder might be in there, and so she has to decide if she’s going to let you look for it on your own (in which case you may also wish to levy some sort of consequence) or if she’s willing to clean up (with your assistance) to see if it turns up. [Side note: S and I both have kids who sometimes struggle with truthfulness and are apt to “dig in” when confronted, which is why I’d treat the possible pilfering as a side issue for the time being. Any accusation is only going to escalate matters.]
Bottom line, I would almost never recommend just searching a kid’s room without warning, and in this case especially, you’re not talking about danger or other serious delinquency. This is a great opportunity to discuss expectations and consequences, and if she digs her heels in and refuses to locate any of the items or work on organizing her space, well, then the logical course of action is to go in there yourself, sure. But if you can help her to see that privacy comes with appropriate behaviors, that may motivate her to change accordingly. And if it doesn’t, you’re still not doing a “sneak attack,” you’re simply doing exactly what you said you would. That’s still teaching the value of privacy—you want her to have that right, but it’s something she earns through compliance with expectations. You make the rules and if she’s not willing to comply, then she loses that privacy—with ample warning—and that’s her choice.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.