Should you spy on your kids?
At least one mother thinks so. Her 17-year-old daughter might be alive today, she believes, had she read the teen’s diary, rifled through her bedroom drawers, maybe even followed the high school senior to some of the parties she attended. But the suburban Chicago woman didn’t suspect anything was amiss, until the day she received a phone call telling her that her daughter had died of a heroin overdose.
It was about eight years ago when I interviewed the mom for a story on how the drug was sweeping through the suburbs. She was sharing her story as a way to help other parents pick up on something she missed. Even if you think you have a “good” kid, she said, talk to them well before any potentially dangerous situation arises. But also check. Spy. Follow. This was in the days before Facebook, texting and e-mail was widespread, but wary parents say to monitor those too. Your child will probably hate you for snooping, but parents say it’s worth it if evidence turns up that he or she is doing something harmful. “I’d rather have her hate me and be alive,” the woman said.
Heroin use hasn’t gone away in the intervening years; in fact it’s not as hidden as it used to be, as its low cost and easy availability continue to make it popular. Families are still suffering, and still seeking help. Now, parents who don’t discover something on their own want the addict’s friends to step up.
Parents also are having informal discussions whether to push for a law that would grant immunity to anyone who calls 911 to report a drug overdose. Such a law might save lives and prevent people from dumping bodies of overdose victims, but it also could let drug users off the hook.
Often, parents say, drug users are afraid to call 911 to report a friend’s overdose for fear that they’ll get in trouble themselves.
Moms and dads still hope they can reach their kids before curiosity turns into a habit, and a habit becomes deadly. If that means spying, so be it.
But some parenting experts say snooping crosses an ethical line. “How can we expect our kids to trust and respect us if we seemingly don’t extend the same courtesy to them?,” says Corrine Gregory, founder of SocialSmarts, a program that teaches social skills. However, she told me, if parents suspect a problem, they should take a “trust, but verify” approach. Let them have e-mail and Facebook accounts, but make the kids give you their passwords and tell them you will check if necessary. Go through their drawers if you have to. “That’s our job — to keep our kids safe.”
Dr. John Mayer, a Chicago psychologist specializing in helping families deal with teens and drugs, also says spying is wrong. “Privacy and independence are critical ingredients to the healthy development of mature young people. Giving young people privacy and independence builds mastery in them, which is a building block for self-esteem and self-confidence,” he told me. The caveat, he said, is when parents do suspect some nefarious activity, and then they must check out their kid by whatever means necessary. He lists family support resources here and also has manuals for sale on his site.
It’s easier to justify snooping when you have an inkling that something is not right. The difficulty comes when you have no reason to be suspicious. Some argue the mom whose daughter died should have been more tuned in, but children can be very good at covering their tracks. She says not to wait until it’s too late.