Where is the line drawn between spying on children and protecting them from themselves? With the influences and possibilities afforded by technology, parents today are often faced with this question. Thirty years ago it might have meant a parent deciding to read a child’s diary, while today it means possibly spying online in order to keep track of friends, choices, and dangers lurking around the corners for our children. While we do have the responsibility to keep them safe with whatever means we have available, parents need to be careful when using spying as their method of protection.
How Do Parents Spy on Their Kids?
For every social media site, virtual relationship, and even the tangible local mall, there are ways to keep track of children. Senator Eric Adams of New York even went so far as to create a You Tube video instructing parents how to spy on their kids, specifically those parents on the lookout for drugs and weapons. He gives details on how to search your child’s room and what types of signs to look for in your own home, and promotes regular and thorough searches. His motto is, “Expect your children to do what’s right, but you always have to inspect what you expect.”
Beyond the walls of the home, many parents are using technology related controls and measures to monitor their children’s behaviors. These can include hidden web cams, tracking devices on phones and other electronics, and online monitoring devices. A recent study reveals that while 84% of parents feel confident in the responsibility levels of their children’s online activities, 72% of parents monitor their children’s activities online. Compare this to 80% of teens reporting that they used privacy settings to hide things from either their parents or certain friends, and there is a definite grey area of awareness between what children are doing online and what parents are actually seeing.
The Dangers of Spying on Your Kids
The whole phrase, “spying on your kids” does not give a warm and fuzzy feeling to parents. Instead it invokes distrust and wariness on both sides of the aisle. We work for years as parents to develop relationships built on trust and respect and put forth efforts to raise children who will make safe, sound choices, but we also know that they are kids, and that kids make mistakes. Sometimes it feels like we have to protect them from themselves, and the only way to do that is to go behind their backs and make sure that the choices we want them to make are actually the choices they are making.
The biggest danger of spying on your child is what to do with the information you gather without destroying the last bit of trust that might be present between you and your child.
For example, let’s say you spy on your child while she is supposed to be at the mall with her girlfriend, and you instead see that she is going to a movie with a boyfriend she hasn’t told you about yet. How will you let her know what you found out without either lying to her or pushing her further away? Chances are if she didn’t tell you about the boy it is because there is already a low level of confidence or trust between the two of you, and admitting that you are spying will only increase the likelihood that she hides more from you and just gets better at covering her tracks. On the other hand, if you decide to entrap her with the information so you don’t have to admit that you were spying, you will not be building a solid foundation of trust and your own reliability and credibility deteriorates. Building strong relationships with kids, especially teenagers, is almost impossible when parents are spying on children and maneuvering their ways through the tangles of lies and deceit.
Alternatives to Spying
A better approach to spying on kids is to establish clear expectations and consequences long before you actually are faced with these complicated situations. The standard line I use in my house is, “Remember what I expect of you, and remember that I will find out in the end.” I also am upfront with my kids about the measures I take to make sure that they are safe and following the guidelines we have established. This includes mandating that I have access to any and all internet sites, to check whenever I need to. It also means that things like cell phones, bedrooms, and gatherings with friends are not off limits to me. We use an internet monitoring and blocking system for the kids’ computer, giving us information about the types of sites they are visiting and how much time they are there. The kids know about this feature, and understand that in order to have certain privileges, there are certain parental access features that we reserve the right to practice.
Through all of this, our kids also have earned our trust and are respectful of our parenting. I also emphasize it is not just a matter of me needing to know that they are making good choices, but I need to be aware of the choices that others around them are making. If their friends have histories of poor choices, it is my job to make sure these choices aren’t putting my kids in danger. There are ongoing, fluid conversations in our home that support our relationships of trust and respect. While these are not guarantees that my kids will make the choices I hope they do, it is a solid foundation from which our family can grow.
When Spying is OK
No matter how hard we try, sometimes our children just make mistakes or fall into poor decision making patterns that warrant deeper involvement by parents. Some examples of when spying is a legitimate option for parents include:
- A strong history of dangerous behaviors such as drug abuse, where trust is no longer an option
- Strong indications of negative relationships, such as when dating violence is suspected
- A serious history of lying and deceit by the child
- The presence of mental illnesses in the child
Spying on children should never be the first method used by parents to keep their children safe. Focusing in the early developmental years on building strong, respectful relationships will reduce the future need to go behind your children’s backs and spy on their every move. Talk more, be there for them, and give them opportunities for independence. Leave spying up to the Mata Haris of the world.