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Do Kids Have a Right to Privacy?

Diaries, voice mail messages, e-mail messages, texts, and other personal correspondence.  Do your kids have a right to privacy regarding these?  As a parent, is it ok to review these . . . and, if so, under what circumstances is it ok?

Certainly, an argument can be made for both side of this hotly debated issue.  On the one hand, you, as the parent, are ultimately responsible for everything that happens to and with your kids; thus, it makes sense that you have the right to review anything and everything about your kids to assess potential dangers that may be afoot.  On the other hand, everything you do with your kids is establishing a paradigm that will potentially shape your kids’ adult expectations, behaviors, and relationships: thus, it makes sense that you should not review anything that your kids may reasonably perceive as private as you want your kids, when they are adult, to know where healthy privacy boundaries rest, be respectful of the privacy of others, and to defend constructively their own right to privacy.  

In this author’s opinion, neither argument is persuasive.  Instead, a mid-ground approach is recommended.   According to this approach, parents should not review anything that their kids may reasonably perceive as private unless there is an urgent and compelling reason to behave to the contrary.  Let’s review several circumstances to determine the implications of this approach.

Scenario #1

You think your teen daughter’s friends may be using illicit drugs.  Hopefully, you and your daughter have had open communication as your historical norm.  Using that history of open communication as your foundation, you can approach your daughter and ask her if her friends may be using illicit drugs (make sure to ask in a calm, non-accusatory manner).  If your daughter indicates that her friends are “clean”, then let her know that you accept that answer.  Also let her know that she can talk to you about anything and that you will always “be there” to support her.  Then, conclude the conversation unless she wishes to discuss the matter further.  At this juncture, you have no need to access her perceived private communications.  You should trust your daughter to come to you if danger is afoot.

Scenario #2

You think your teen son is depressed and potentially suicidal.  Using your history of open communication with your son as your foundation, you can approach your son and ask him how he is feeling.  If he is not forthcoming, you may share your observations and ask more specific questions.  For example, you might say, “Dakota, I’ve noticed that you sleep all the time anymore.  You don’t go out with your friends, you don’t join in family activities, and you have lost your interest in all the hobbies and activities that you used to love.  It’s even hard for me to get you to eat.  I’m worried for you.  Are you sure you are ok?”  If your son maintains silence, you should suggest counseling as a loving, supportive option.  If your son resists, you can begin inquiring into the situation in a peripherally invasive way.  You can visit with your son’s teachers, guidance counselors, and other school officials to see what they are observing and what they recommend.  If you happen upon one of your son’s friends in the grocery store, you might say, “Sam, I really miss seeing you.  You used to come by our house often.  How come I never see you anymore?”  If, after peripherally invasive inquiry, you find out that your son might be at imminent risk of harming himself or others (note the emphasis on the word imminent), then it may be appropriate for you to review your son’s private communications.  If you choose to do so, do not keep this a secret:  the perceived invasion of privacy will be seen by your son as violation enough . . . keeping that perceived violation a secret will be seen as a further violation.  Some parents think that they can review their kids’ private communications “on the sly”.  Let’s be clear: you can’t.  Sooner or later, the truth will out.  Make sure that your kids know that you are being up front with them at all times.  Your communication with your son may be as follows:  “Dakota, I’ve talked with you several times about what I’m seeing as signs of depression.  You don’t seem willing or able to talk with me about it.  That’s ok: I’m not here to force you to talk with me.  However, I’m your mom, I love you, and it’s my job to help you when I think you are struggling.  I spoke with your teachers: they tell me your grades have dropped significantly this quarter.  They say you seem distant, disinterested, and even withdrawn in class.  I saw Sam at the grocery store yesterday: he told me that he misses you.  He said he’s tried to call you several times, but he thinks you are blowing him off.  Your dad and I spoke about this last night, and we are both very worried for you, son.  We love you very much.  Right now, I’m going to get your cell phone and your laptop.  Dad is going to review these to see if there is anything in there that helps us help you.  I know you are probably not wild about us going through your things, but since you aren’t talking and we have reason to be significantly worried, we think this is the best course of action.  I will sit here with you now while Dad reviews your texts, e-mails, etc.  If you want to talk with me, I’m begging you to do so.  Please.”  (Your son may become very angry, but your actions will ultimately be shown to be well chosen.)


By following a mid-ground approach, you can balance your parental interests in your kids and your kids’ right to privacy.

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