Should Parents Snoop on Their Kids?

Should Parents Snoop on Their Kids?

By: Mona R. Spiegel, Ph.D.

The Question

Our primary job as parents is to keep our children safe. Are we permitted to “snoop” on them in order to protect them from harm? Should we read their diaries, listen to their phone conversations, and check their email log?

The Court Case

Before you answer the question, be aware of your legal rights. The State Supreme Court of Washington, as described in the Seattle Times, unanimously reversed a 2000 robbery conviction in a case that was based in part on the testimony of a mother and what she heard in a telephone conversation between her daughter and her daughter’s friend.

The mother, Carmen Dixon, reportedly heard the friend discuss the robbery and even took notes of the conversation as she listened to it. By reversing the conviction, the Supreme Court is saying that it’s a crime to eavesdrop on anybody’s private conversation, including that of children. Although the attorneys cited provisions in the federal wiretap law that allow parents to listen to their children’s conversations, in Washington State there is “no such parental exception and no Washington court has ever implied such an exception,” according to the court opinion.

Will we get into trouble for performing our parental duty? Are there limits to our parental prerogative?

The Debate

My son, Tommy, doesn’t talk to me. If I ask him about school he says “It’s fine,” even though I don’t see him doing any work and his teachers report that he’s not handing in his assignments. He’s very irritable and is constantly fighting with his siblings. Lately, he spends almost all of his time in his room, listening to music or on the phone. He doesn’t respond if I ask him about his friends, where they’re going, or when they’ll be back. I’m happy that he still comes home at night.

Parents are in agony when left in the dark about a child’s activities. Who knows what he is doing! Is he involved with the “wrong” type of peer group? Is he hurting himself by engaging in behavior that is dangerous, either physically or emotionally, or illegal? What is a parent to do?

On the one hand, maybe we should just control our anxious thoughts and feelings. After all, we parents recognize our teenagers’ desire for privacy. They need time to be alone, space for their possessions, and the knowledge that we won’t pry into their lives. We want to have a relationship of trust and respect with them. We also want them to become increasingly independent so that they may be prepared for adulthood. If we control their lives too much we might impair their decision-making ability and hinder them from attaining the self-confidence to make the important decisions that lie ahead.

On the other hand, are we being naïve and foolish if we don’t snoop on our children?

To determine what to do, let’s examine what we mean by snooping. To snoop, according to the dictionary, is “to pry into other people’s business or affairs, especially in a furtive way.” Thus you are snooping when you monitor your children’s activities without their knowledge or expectations. That secretive activity implies that you don’t trust your child.

When There is Trouble

Are you indeed worried about your child? Do you have just cause for concern or are you overreacting to behavior that is normal for your child’s age?

My daughter, Mimi, likes to talk. She’s on the phone for hours every night. She’s even willing to pay for her own phone line. She won’t let me hear a word of her conversation. She goes to sleep way after I do. She runs to shop with her friends and hardly spends any time with the family. She’s very talkative around her peers and is nice to her siblings, but she barely talks to me. Although her teachers report that she participates in class, she’s quiet and withdrawn at the dinner table.

It is often difficult to discern whether the behaviors that we see are problematic. What are the possible causes for concern? They include any change in a child’s behavior, school grades, hygiene, friends or sleeping and eating habits. We’re not talking about Mimi’s self-centeredness or her late hours. These behaviors are typical of teenagers. But Tommy’s late hours combined with his recent irritability, withdrawal and poor performance may indeed be a red flag for trouble.

If you suspect that something serious may be happening then, most experts agree, it’s ok to snoop. Search Tommy’s room for any clue that indicates that he is leading a secret life. You are doing so out of fear for his safety, not because you are a nosy, controlling parent.

If upon investigation you do find something inappropriate, it’s time to consult with a professional as to the best course of action. You will also need to confront Tommy directly about it. But plan your conversation carefully. Make sure that you control your emotions and convey your worry, not your anger. Have an agenda in mind of what you want to say. State (1) why you were concerned; (2) what you found; and (3) what you will do about it.

Above all, show that you care about Tommy and that you want to protect him. Emphasize that his freedom from intrusion is a privilege, not a right. As long as everything seems okay – which you will ascertain by continued monitoring of his behavior – then you will not need to investigate further. On the other hand, if you feel concerned, you will do whatever is necessary to find out what is going on.

Recommendations

The best strategy is to be proactive. Get to know your children’s interests and friends, as well as their friends’ parents. Convey your interest by being available to your children; for example, by driving them places and sitting down to dinner with them. Learn to listen nonjudgmentally, and try to listen more than you speak. In this way, you communicate that you value their opinions and can accept a point of view that is different from your own.

Discuss with your child what is private and what is not. Go over your rules and expectations. In addition, clearly state that you will occasionally drop in on their cell phone log and be in touch with their teachers.

Many parents keep the children’s computer in a common room, not a child’s bedroom. This strategy facilitates hands-on supervision of their computer usage. These days it is fairly easy to check out how they use the computer, and don’t hesitate to do so. You might also want to prohibit chat rooms and IMing (Instant Messaging), and to generally limit the amount of online usage.

Go into your teenager’s room periodically – being careful not to trip over anything on the floor – and look around. You may see something that is left around by accident. Then don’t get into a battle about cleanliness. We’re discussing far more important values than a spotless room.

However, there is a very important caveat: Remember not to over-control and over-manage your child. You want all of your children to be able to manage their own lives, and the pre-adolescent and adolescent years are the training ground for doing so.

Instead, keep the lines of communication open. Sometimes they will close down (teenagers are notoriously moody and private) but you will be there to observe, question and intervene.

Finally, seek professional help if you notice an unhealthy pattern of teenage behavior and you feel helpless or uncertain what to do. Taking action now could prevent much more serious problems later.

By: Mona R. Spiegel, Ph.D.
“My Family Coach”

Dr. Mona Spiegel is a Licensed Psychologist with a private practice in Rockland County, NY.   She is also a Professional Coach who provides telephone sessions to women who do not need therapy but seek guidance concerning themselves or their families.  She focuses on parenting issues, relationship/communication skills, and life transitions. You can reach her at 845-425-4842 or www.myfamilycoach.com.

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Comments

  1. I would like feedback on Instant Messaging and computer rules that others have had success implementing.

  2. I respect my children’s right and need for privacy but much like the privileges of going out with friends or driving the family car, this is something that is earned. How different would things have been if someone had checked on the Columbine student’s blog containing death threats and information on how to make bombs? Online predators, failing school work, teenage pregnancy, drug usage, alcohol use — the list of things that can potentially plague our children is endless. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children — even if that means protecting them from their own self-destruction. I don’t go storm-trooping into my children’s lives however; they understand that cell phones, email, internet usage, going out with friends, driving – these are all areas of trust that must be earned and if trust is ever broken, the privilege revoked. Yes, I occasionally check into my children’s lives and there have been times I had to address issues where I thought they were making poor choices. Parents need to wake up and be aware of what’s going on. Don’t believe me? Have you seen your child’s myspace lately?

  3. Bruce Wilderman says:

    I’m worried about my kids making the same mistakes that I did. Basically is comes down to trust issues and lack of communication. I have tried numerous ways, but they usually tune out when I talk too much. I have 13 and 10 year old girls and my son is almost 7. He is the least of my problems, but I want to set a good example. My wife and I are a unified front so they are not able to play one against the other like I did. I am able to keep a check on their activities, but the girls sometimes work together to weave a web of mystery.

  4. Having AOL, I implement the parental controls for each child’s screen name based on their age and maturity level. In general, my children are not allowed to IM anyone I don’t know and I keep up with who their friends are. With AOL, I can set timers on each screen name so when a child’s time is up, they lose internet access. I occasionally check emails and screennames that are on my child’s buddy list. I also check their history from time to time to see what website have been visited but then again, I get these reports automatically generated through the AOL parental controls. We also keep our computer in the family room in plain view. This is for accountability not only for the children but my husband and I as well.

  5. Gordon L. Dilmore says:

    No doubt you will label me as a male chauvinist, but I have a deep philosophical problem with terms such as “Women are society’s caregivers” &
    “Helping Women and Their Families.” That terminology is repugnant to me.

    The implication is that men (fathers) do not play a role in the family caregiving process and are not partners in helping families.

    I would submit that this separatist attitude is the core of the family problems we are experiencing today.

    Men are a dynamic part of the caregiving process and they should be held accountable as such. I’m talking about the entire process, not just the financial part.

    Secondly, I would submit that the characteristics displayed by “Mimi” are potentially just as disturbing as those displayed by “Tommy” and call for positive proactive intervention on the part of her parents. Her actions may be “typical” by today’s measure, but “typical” is not necessarily psychologically normal or healthy.

    We are the parents (both wife and husband)and we have the right and the responsibility to set the standards of conduct as well as the expectations for our children to abide by.

    When we don’t do that, we fail our obligations.

  6. As the parent of two teenagers,sometimes I do snoop. I have looked at my kids my space accounts both with them and without them. Maybe I am overstepping boundaries, but they seem to have a lot more secrets to hide than I did as a teenager. I did not have to contend with secret cell phone calls (one phone in the kitchen) under the listening ears of my parents. I did not have text messages or e-mail or AIM accounts. It just seems to me that kids have alot more avenues for concealing things from their parents. I feel that if I am paying for all of these things,then I have a right to check on how my kids are using them.

  7. It’s not enough to check out your child’s MySpace. Allowing your child to have one, and to access it, is the equivalent of letting your teenage son have adult magazines and asking him not look at them. On MySpace, your friend has a friend who has a friend whose page is filthy. In two clicks of the mouse your son/daughter is viewing dirty/disturbing images without even asking for it. And once they know where to find it, they’ll keep going back.

    What to do with the fact that all his/her friends have MySpace? I don’t know the perfect answer, but you’re the parent.

  8. I have an 11 year old son and a 6 year old daughter. My son has his own computer and access to the internet but one STRICT rule is that he cannot add friends on Instant messengers without my approval nor can he download anything without my approval first. He respects these rules and knows that if he ever desires something different he can come to me on a semi adult level and show cause for the change. If he’s persuasive he may win out…if not…things stay as they are. My daughter on the other hand…only has a few things she’s allowed to do internet wise…and I have to take her to those approved sites. She will later on gain the same rules (once she has a computer of her own) I have found that if you treat your children as PEOPLE most of the time you don’t have a problem.

  9. Though I have seen undesirable content on some myspace places, it has been nothing to the extent of an adult magazine! Even the myspace website has rules and content posting regulations. However; the issue is not what other people post but being aware of who your kids are in contact with. You can only add friends with permission and set your page to private. My children do not accept invitations that would not meet our, their parents, approval. And if something is questionable or beyond our limitations, friends can easily be deleted. With strict limitations or not, my children are ALWAYS treated with respect and as PEOPLE; the only difference being treated age appropriate, not as adults.

  10. I don’t think “snooping” should be made out to be such a horrible word. Why wait until you think your child has a problem to try to fix it. I think more parents need to stop letting their kids set the standards and take back the role of parenting.
    It is a world that is getting worse everyday. And the best gift you can give your child is to have open communication. From the time they are little we should take an interest in who they hang out with and where they go.
    If we set the standard when they are young, we won’t have to feel like we are invading their trust when they are older.
    I think it is ridiculous that kids have all the things they have today without having rules to go with them!!!
    We are the parents for a reason!!!

  11. I think the bigger problem that causes this, isn’t being addressed. Why are these kids not speaking to their parents? Why are the family relationships not close like they should be?

    I have 5 children. We talk about everything…first kisses, down to who they talk to online. My kids even read to me their conversations online with their friends, and we laugh.

    I know their circle of friends, we also homeschool. I don’t snoop on my children. If they want to share a journal entry with me, then they can, but they have my promise that I won’t snoop…because I know I can trust them to come to me with anything that could be harmful. They know they are loved, they know that they can come to me, and we will work it out together.

    It’s very important to make your child know they are loved…unconditionally. So that even when they screw up (which all of us do) that they can come to you, and work it out. It’s not the end of the world, and you won’t freak out and ground them for life. LOL

    As I read the statements in the article, I am amazed at how distant some parents are from their children. It’s unnatural to not communicate with one another. I must just be lucky or something!

    LadyPoet
    (mom to 18yod, 16yos, 14yos, 8yos and 6yos)

  12. Well, my kids call me Snoop Doggy Dogg and I am proud of it! I have three teenagers and they know that I look at their Myspaces (I am actually on their friends list) and that I ask questions about their lives. I am sure it’s annoying at times but by my doing it openly, there is no need to do it sneakily. Hopefully, this will relay to them and they will be open with me.

  13. All this baloney about “consulting a professional” is getting out of control. Read anything by Gordon Neufeld or Alfie Kohn and do it when your kids are young, then leave the psychiatrists out of it. They don’t know anything.

  14. This is an ongoing concern in our house. We used to allow our 14 year old daughter pretty much unlimited access to our household computer and she had a cell of her own. We felt that she deserved her privacy and needed the opportunity to explore and “try on” different styles as adolescents do. I know many of my daughter’s friends and have seen their MySpace pages and know that much of the written material is fantasy and play. The photos are also playacting – for the most part. (This has led to some very frank discussions and good dialogue between us about trust and other personal safety and friendship issues).
    Now after a few episodes of lying and a lower than expected grade in geometry, we have taken both privileges away. We feel she is not developmentally ready to regulate her own technology behavior so, as parents, it is our job to help her learn. Our requirements are demonstrated respect, consideration and responsibility. We have communicated these expectations is a concrete manner that is appropriate for her age.
    I still respect her need for privacy and will not actively snoop – unless I feel there is a need for my intervention. I agree with Dr. Spiegel that we need to be alert for changes in behavior and see any changes as the call for increased parental supervision.

  15. Knowing who is on your childs buddy lists isn’t enough. My daughter is usually very responsible, so are her friends… But when I have read over her IMs they shocked me just the same. These are kids that I know, I know thier parents and I took away all instant messaging privileges when I realized that even really wonderful kids will say things over the computer that they would never say in person or on the phone. It gives them a feeling of being able to voice things that they might not say aloud, I prefer to just have the friends over, where they know I can hear. I am not snooping, its my house, my telephone, and my computer. Snooping by definition is gettting into other peoples business, until they are old enough to provide all of those things for themselves, its still my business. I lived at home until I got married at 25 and had a curfew the entire time, my Mother always said that grown-ups don’t live with thier parents so whenever I felt grown up I was more than welcome to move on.

  16. T, I like your Mom!

  17. Mom to four special kids says:

    I feel that as long as my children live in my house, their activities are my business. I will say, however, that when the kids were younger I did mandatory room checks randomly. I did not know however at that time that my son was doing drugs (since resolved).

    With the kids computer time – I limit them to a certain time – example my oldest daughter is 15, and she has 1.5 hours per night beginning at 7:30pm – if she goes over, there is a rules overview that she and my husband and her therapist and I signed (she has Aspergers). I will periodically go online and check the history – if it has been deleted, she automatically gets one week of restriction from the computer. I have a list of all of her sites that she goes on and both my ex husband and I will log into these sites and check on her.

    My son, who is now 18, has pretty much unlimited access to the computer – he takes the unused blocks of time and all of the kids understand that if they are asked to get off the computer due to an adult using it – they have 5 minutes to comply – and then they start losing time. The two smallest children don’t have blocks of time yet, as they are 10 and 6, however, the older children are asked to accomodate them, as they need assistance. The only children left “alone” while online are the two oldest ones – plus I have my laptop in the same room, and generally will go into the computer room while they are on….

    Short answer – as parents we have the right and more importantly the responsibility to be aware of what our children are doing, who they are talking to, and the activities they are engaging in. I would only call it snooping if for some reason your children are not aware that it is your responsibility to check up on them… I cannot imagine minors not understanding this though.

  18. Snooping by definition is gettting into other peoples business, until they are old enough to provide all of those things for themselves, its still my business.

    T is right on the money:)

  19. My thoughts on MySpace were a little more liberal than they are now…My 12 year old son was excited to start one with his team picture on it and thought he could communicate with his “friends”…After a couple of weeks, and a few ’60 Minutes’ episodes on the issue, I went in to tell my son to delete his MySpace, only to find out he had done it a few days earlier…Why? He said it was “…too weird and not very nice….”. Point being that something we’re doing is working. The family basis/core in his life was strong enough to realize right from wrong. I think if parents are involved in the very beginning and stay involved in all aspects of their childrens lives, when it comes to bigger issues, their values will lead them in the right direction. They won’t always make the right choice, but by the good graces of Our Maker, and our consciensous work as involved parents, the hard knocks won’t be so hard.

    When grounding a child for poor decisions, be it from the computor or cell phone, or whatever electronic device, interact more with them during this time to invoke good strong family values. Doing so, may help turn the morality of this world around. Providing more electronic devices and allowing them to be so prevalent in our kids’ lives is the parents fault. Take back the family unit and stop the armchair parenting!

    As for snooping, if you smell smoke, it’s our job to put the fire out…quickly! It’s not easy for our children and their peers….it’s not a walk in the park on the parenting side either when their friends are allowed to do just about anything. Giving them everything sometimes means taking away important things….Quality vs quantity!

  20. These are all some very interesting comments and points of view. One thing that stood out in particular is when Debbi talked about what a wonderful, trusting relationship she has with her kids. I don’t disbelieve that she has the relationship that she claims to, but I think that it is an erroneous mindset to assume that things will always be as such and function accordingly. The biological changes alone that children go through as they mature could radically alter their relationship at any time, as well as other likely events such as extreme peer pressure, romantic involvement, or a really bad choice made by one of her children. While I feel that it is commendable that she has the relationship with her children that she does, it is not advisable to rest in the assumption that things will always be this way. She said that “I know I can trust them to come to me with anything that could be harmful.” I hope that she is keeping her eyes open just in case. The cost is just too great if she is wrong. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. That is always my motto.

    I have 6 children and we have the same type of close relationship that Debbi described with her children so I do believe her, I just hope that she is not living in a suedo world of “Not my child”. I trust my children but I do not trust the world, I do not trust society.

    I agree with those that said because they are my children there is no such concept as snooping. My children and all things concerning them is absolutely and unequivocally my business! It is only fair though to be upfront with your children and let them know very plainly that you fully intend to exercise your parental right and obligation to examine and watchover their lives. If you are not upfront it makes you look weak and as a person that lacks integrity and strong morals; and it does paint you as a snoop. Being sneaky will ultimately cause the child to distrust you and have a lack of respect for you as a person and a parent and that will show through in their communication with you.

    Admittedly, even in the midst of all of this good advice, I have a 12 yr old son that readily tells me that he does not believe that I have the right to govern his life. We actually have a pretty good relationship. Who can really say that their child tells them “everything” since no parent knows what “everything” entails. But he does tell me way more than the typical male child tells his mother. Inspite of our good relationship he just absolutely cannot see and understand why I have the right to “interfere” (as he calls it) in his life. We have learned to agree to disagree on this issue but we are still working out the issue daily. I believe that he respects me because although I make it clear that I do not agree with him and that I am not going to change my actions based on this belief of his, I don’t discredit his right to believe what he does.I believe that he will come around one day soon, but until then I separate the behavior from the child. This is something that we all must do, we can’t label our children bad or good for that matter based on their behavior. We just have to show them unconditional love and keep communication open. Don’t make the mistake of teaching our children that their temporal behavior or performances define who they are. Let them know that they are great just because and teach them to define themselves based on their moral beliefs and character. That way a mistake won’t tear them down and a good job won’t puff them up.

    OK, I am going on and on. That’s all folks. Oh one last thing: Sorry Mr. Dilmore that you were left feeling slighted as a father. My husband is a great dad and really involved with our children. I honor him and you, but the truth is this is not the case in such a great percentage of homes now-a-days. but we welcome you nonetheless.

    ~Laneen

  21. Karen McBride says:

    I am the mother of 4…my oldest son has been in to email for several years now….from the start I told him that if he wanted the privilege of using email, I would have the right to read it at my own discretion..we pay for the internet and the computer…it is his privilege to use it…we have had almost no problems…I have found that children will say things in an email and on IM that they would never say to a person’s face…Both are so instant and take little thought or effort to send unlike a letter that requires much more effort…that is why I feel so strongly about reading it…He knows that I read email and that his friends’ parents read emails…we can not control everything but we can have a large level of control of this particular area of communication…Most of what he sends and receives is harmless…Our computer is in a common area also so it is very difficult for anyone to be on inappropriate sites…Karen

  22. Laneen, I never thought about how sneaking around instead of being upfront with my children would set a bad example and and have such a negative effect on how they see me. Thanks for making that point.

  23. Growing up, my parents always told me. “We’ll trust you until you give us a reason not to.” It was a nice feeling to know that they weren’t going to interrogate me or snoop without just cause. It worked for us.

  24. For me growing up, I had an excellent relationship with my parents. They were “over-protective” by many people’s standards. Can’t tell you how often we heard people tell my folks they would ruin us. My sisters and I have happy, healthy, baggage-free lives and marriages for the most part. Can’t say the same for the children of those who told my parents they should lighten up.

    There were times I rolled my eyes and sighed when my parents would ask me where my friends and I were going, who was driving, who was going along… That was “annoying” or perhaps embarrassing as a teen ONLY because it was not typical. I can not tell you how thankful I am for that now. Even while still young, I saw times when that protected me.

    What my parents did RIGHT was to befriend us kids without giving up their authority. They enjoyed being with us. We enjoyed being with them. They set rules, lots of them, but they explained the logic behind them and they had high standards for themselves, too. They loved us unconditionally, like someone said earlier, and they let us know this. They got to KNOW us and never let us drift off into our own little worlds. (We were not even allowed to shut the family out with a walk-man in our ears. If they spoke to us, we turned the thing off — immediately.) They always knew us, and we knew them! We were pals and confidants!

    I do not understand why we accept the idea that it is normal for our children to find their parents lame or embarrassing or someone to push away or shut out. They begin to push for their freedom, yes, but there should still be a relationship there. When did this become standard policy? I’ll bet if we followed societies that accepted this idea and societies that expected and fostered close relationships with their children up to adulthood, we’d find that those who expected and fostered close relationship have enjoyed citizens who make better choices overall.

    Actually, I do know why we accept this. We do it because everyone else does, or so it seems. We’re worried our children will be “weird” if we expect different standards than what their friends are used to. I say, too bad. Be weird. I was. AND be proactive about helping your children choose some friends from families who think as you do. They are out there. Don’t huddle and be exclusive, but use each other as support.

    There were three of us girls in my family. None of us rebelled. We didn’t even have scowls or frowns on our faces like I see so much these days. We made mistakes. I got in the middle of a group that was doing something wrong and didn’t know what to do, got too friendly with a young man and found out just how strong those hormones are…Anytime there was something like that, we talked about it with our parents, we all worked it out together.

    I totally agree that the world our children are growing up in is different. They have WAY too much access to whomever and whatever. My child will not speak to somebody over the computer or telephone that I have not yet invited into my living room. As long as I am legally responsible for them, they will NEVER take off with friends whose parents we do not know without giving us some idea of where they will be going and what they will be doing.

    We talk with our oldest about WHY she does not have unsupervised access to the internet, etc. She doesn’t love it, but she accepts it. (I don’t read every email she sends or receives, but she knows that I may do so at any given time, the computer is in the living room, etc.) She has some friends who are allowed a lot more freedom. Most of her friends also live by the same rules. For now, she’s not kicking against it. I’m hoping that, like me, she’ll realize that her boundaries are for her protection, not for her enstranglement.

  25. I read where checking who and what websites your child are talking to or visiting are easy to find. How do I check those things? My teenage son’s behavior has changed drastically even becoming violent at times. He spends almost all of his waking hours when he is not in school either playing video games or computer video games. His father travels most of the time. Our son is supposed to have a 2 hour game limit but he will not abide by it and gets belligerent and at times violent when reminded of the time limit. I am not getting any help from his father and quite frankly, he is scaring me beyond what I can handle. He is much bigger than I am and I have a physical ailment that keeps me even weaker than a normal person and he uses that to his advantage.