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Dec. 18 2009 - 1:12 pm | 18 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Should you spy on your kids?

Dear Diary: 21/10/06

Should you read her diary? Image by kiwanja via Flickr

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.

via Daily Herald | Mother of suburban teen who died warns others.

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    How about a happy medium? Instead of making your kid give you his facebook password, become his facebook friend. If he suddenly restricts what you can see, you know it’s time to talk. Invite your kid’s friends to dinner. Instead of following your kid to a party, ask who will be there and if you don’t know the first 3 people he lists, ask a lot more questions. At that age, there is at least 1 adult that your kid trusts with more information than you, because you make the rules. Find out who that person is and let them know that they can pass on information to you, and you won’t reveal that you know it or act on it unless it’s critical.

  2. collapse expand

    Dear Hilary,

    I’m a Brown University psychiatrist who specializes in issues related to families and relationships. My most recent book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” describes the importance of families communicating and sharing the same values.

    The truth is that parents must spy on children. It’s absurd to trust that the child’s word should be accepted at its face value; every parent knows that children try to give parents the answers that they want, in order to avoid conflict and get more of what the child wants.

    Sadly, even spying on a child, reading a diary, or hiring a private detective often can’t prevent the insidious outcome associated with substance abuse.

    • collapse expand

      Doc, your message is grim. Spying on our kids is okay, but even if we do, it might not be enough to help.
      You and other experts point out correctly that parents should develop trusting relationships with their kids right from the start, and be aware of what they’re up to. But as kids become tweens and tweens become teens, many of them tend to become more private, and secretive.
      As you suggest, snooping in on their lives might be the only way some parents can stay connected.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    My company, Dulcinea Media, promotes effective, efficient, safe and responsible use of the Internet. We’ve published two articles (links below), based on studies, that emphatically argue for monitoring (not spying on) your kids’ Internet use. The world comes into your home through the Internet; if you wouldn’t let your kids walk through Times Square, ride the subway, or talk on an telephone chat line unmonitored, why would you let them use the Internet unmonitored ? The 1st article contains a PDF with 8 tips for monitoring kids. I trust my kids and don’t want them to feel I’m “stalking” them. I don’t sit on their shoulder, I don’t check on everything they do every day, and indeed I’ve almost never confronted them about anything they’ve done online, even though I see the occasional off-color words in chat logs. But I want them to know that I, and my wife, are basically aware of what they are doing online. This keeps them on the straight and narrow and if they do go wildly askew, we’ll know. And believe it or not, kids WANT and appreciate that sort of safety net.



  4. collapse expand

    I’m going to have to spy on my son tonight when I’m one of the adult helpers at his junior high’s activity night, because I can’t talk to him. I believe I am under strict orders to not acknowledge we’re related.

  5. collapse expand

    Would I go through my daughter’s diary and bedroom if I thought she was seriously troubled and not willing to talk about what’s going on? ABSOLUTELY. In my house for my child, I would do whatever I need to do to keep her safe. Even more important, though, is what I decide to do with whatever I find. I may find things I disapprove of that don’t merit my intervention. In that case—cases where whatever I find is not illegal (like drugs) or unsafe (like a loaded gun), I would probably replace whatever I found and not advise her that I knew it was there unless she asked. If it was something illegal or unsafe, I would immediately remove the item from her room (flush illegal drugs down the toilet…unload and lock the gun in a safe place) and weigh whether to confront her directly about what I found, and if so, when and under what circumstances, or I might just wait until she realized it was gone to see how she responds. Trust is a two-way street. If I can’t trust her not to bring contraband into my house, she can’t trust me not to go through her room. As long as she’s a minor and I’m responsible for her, I’ll do whatever I need to do to keep her safe.

    I think diary entries are trickier. I wouldn’t read it unless I had a concern and even if I read it, I wouldn’t confront her unless there were ongoing issues of dishonesty and safety. Simply telling a kid what to do hardly ever works and never works long-term. I want my child to live her own life and experience the natural consequences of her decisions, but I also need to be a safety net, so that the natural consequences are not completely devastating or life-threatening. What I would NOT do is lie to my child, saying I’ve not done something I did or promising a level of privacy she shouldn’t expect. How can I ask her to be honest with me if I’m not willing to be honest with her?

  6. collapse expand

    Dear Hilary;

    Each person has a right to keep a secret.

    Each person has a right to know the truth.


    Where a parent has a loving obligation and responsibility to protect their children, you should advise them that
    love means I can check your promises at any time and in any way.

    You promise to be drug free.
    I will be checking up on you.

    Before you leave today, I have a cup I need you to urinate in. If I discover that you have been less than honest,
    or that you have broken your promise to me, I will not destroy you with it. We will just have a little talk and some things will be a little different…

    You promise to be honorable. That means that you will not lie to me. You will be open and honest with me about almost everything… LOL…
    I will be checking up on you.

    You will leave names, home and cell phone and license plate numbers with me for each of your friends, or the people
    you are hanging around with…
    I will know where you are and what you are doing, most of the time.
    If I discover that you have been less than honest, or that you have broken your promise to me, I will not destroy you with it. We will just have a little talk and some things will be a little different…

    Yes, you should check the promises your child makes to you. Yes, you should hold them to the promises they agree to. Yes, there should be consequences when promises are broken…

    Alcohol and drugs are a common and everyday part of life for many people. You acknowledge the logic and reality of the dangers. You try to impose the methods and procedures to protect your children. Then the harder part is your response and methods for handling the problems of alcolhol or drug, gambling, pornography, etc. interest or addiction.

    As a private investigator I have on occasion, tried to help parents who could not determine the truth about their children. Sad thing is, by the time it gets that bad, it is usually too late for any kind of minor remedy.


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    About Me

    I've spent years chasing cops, public officials, celebrities and the latest trends, reporting for such publications as Newsweek, People, the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald, based in suburban Chicago. I live close enough to one of the world's greatest cities to have witnessed Michael Jordan play, Oprah smack down a drunken mom and Charlie Trotter whip up a feast, but far enough away to mostly avoid major traffic jams, random gunfire and drive-by meth sales on my jaunts to Target, Starbucks and Ann Taylor Loft. As a suburbanite, yes, I have a minivan. Yes, I wear sweater sets. Yes, I know my way around a shopping mall. I still love you skyscraper-gazing, boutique-shopping, public transportation-taking city dwellers, but if you'll excuse me now, I have to go check on my nice green lawn.

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