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Teens and Privacy

Suggestions On How You Can Honor Your Teen's Privacy While Still Parenting

When my mother was a child, she had a wild streak a mile long. So did I, and so does my daughter. It's because of that wild streak that I keep a closer eye on my daughter than my mother did on me. I don't want her doing some of the things that I did – and that I'm lucky I survived.

So far I've never felt the need to check her e-mail, go through her purse or call her friends to be sure she's where she's supposed to be when she says she's going to be there. Would I ever cross that line? Quite honestly, I don't know.

She's almost old enough to drive and is "going out" with the first boy she's ever been the least bit serious about. She's also a lot more mature now than she was when she first slammed her bedroom door and locked it at about age 12. Will that wild streak get the better of her upbringing and intelligence? I don't think so, but I also hope not to have to find out.

Needing to Grow

Margaret Sagarese, along with co-author Charlene Giannetti, has written a new book on this provocative subject called What Are You Doing in There? Balancing Your Need to Know With Your Adolescent's Need to Grow (Broadway Books, 2003). Aimed at parents of children from early adolescence through older teens, it takes a modern world approach to privacy issues from clean bedrooms to the Internet. She wrote it, because as an expert on adolescent parenting issues, she sees parents moving away from a solid, parental relationship with their children as they get older.

"The reason we wrote the book is because so many parents are snooping because they can't figure out how to draw the line," says Sagarese. "Parents have to get to know their child and build up trust. The question is not 'Can I trust my child?' but 'Can they trust you?' If your child is trusting you, that's the best insurance policy against risky behavior."

Sagarese admits that this is often difficult, even with parents who have good relationships with their children when they are in elementary school. Parents who have been very close to a child can feel hurt and rejected when their child hits those preteen years and suddenly – and very naturally – become secretive and begins to withdraw from parents.

"Parents should sit down and talk with their children early on and tell them that while they don't feel they have a right to invade the child's privacy, they will make an exception for their child's safety," says Sagarese. "This is really important in the age of the Internet and the easy contact a child has with strangers who may want to harm them. This simple conversation may cause your child to stop and think, 'Hey, my mom is willing to give me only so much rope.'"

Too Much Rope

Sagarese thinks much of the problem with raising children today is that parents give them too much rope, too few consequences and aren't willing to act like parents.

"The problem with parents today is they want to be friends with their kids," says Sagarese. "One thing we hear over and over is how inconsistent parents are. They may say that a child will be grounded from something if they don't get their grades up or whatever, but when it comes right down to it they don't enforce the consequences."

Brenda Nixon, who speaks extensively on parenting issues and is the author of Parenting Power in the Early Years (WinePress Publishing, 2001), agrees. She is also the mother of two daughters, now 15 and 21. Nixon takes a no-nonsense approach to the issue of privacy that is sometimes at odds with Sagarese's more trusting method.

"As long as my name is on the mortgage, I'm going to know what's going on in my house," says Nixon. "As far as I'm concerned this is not snooping at all, it's passionate, loving curiosity."

Nixon says it's important not to confuse a desire for independence with a right to privacy. While children should be given their independence within reason, strict lines need to be drawn by parents from the very beginning about what is acceptable and what is not.

"Sometimes parents are in denial about their children," Nixon says. "Others just may not want to confront an issue, but if you don't confront it, the problem can spiral out of control. There are serious issues facing kids today – sex, violence, drugs – and we need to guide them through the minefield, not just let them go. So what if they're mad? Sometimes love is curious. Sometimes love says no."

A recent conference Nixon attended on brain development gives scientific credence to her theories about parenting adolescents. One of the workshops was a discussion of the prefrontal cortex. This is the last part of the brain to fully mature – it completes its maturation later in adolescence. It also controls insight and impulse control.

"Just because a child has a mature body doesn't mean they don't still need guidance in making moral and rational decisions," says Nixon. "You can be their friend in a later chapter of their life when they don't need you as much to be there as a hands-on parent."

Privacy and the Internet

Another issue relating to privacy that Nixon and Sagarese are passionate about is teaching children to protect their own privacy. Both point out that this is the first generation of children raised where the Internet was a constant presence in the home. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who have figured out how to use that presence to track our children.

Nixon insists that the family computer be located in a central location so that she can always glance over and see what her daughter is up to. She has also taught her daughter to be alert for suspicious e-mails with odd subject lines and to never, ever give anyone her address for any reason.

In her chapter on the Internet in What Are You Doing In There?, Sagarese goes further, giving some excellent suggestions on how youngsters can protect themselves while chatting with people they may not know. This includes avoiding screen names that are either suggestive or may give clues to a child's age or interests (she uses as an example the name soccerboy13, which was used by police officers tracking cyber predators who found that it attracted unpleasant online advances).

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