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Worried about your kids? It’s okay to snoop

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters tells parents when they should ignore their kids’ privacy.

Today in Parenting Weekends we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #12:
Don’t Be Afraid to Snoop
Of all the parenting issues that I deal with, this is one of the stickiest. Of course you want to trust your child and treat his possessions as private, but what if the kid’s behavior raises significant suspicion? Does that give you the right to rifle through the bedroom reading notes or journals, or search drawers for drugs or paraphernalia? You’re darn tootin’ it does! Sometimes we have to save our kids even from themselves, and if you must ruffle their feathers in the process, so be it.


This is the law that always sparks the most debate. It’s also the one that parents are most relieved to read, because it gives them permission to be parents again!

One of the most important parenting responsibilities is the safety of your child. And this law makes it clear that it is your right and responsibility to check on your child’s safety by knowing what your child is getting into — involvement with friends, attendance and performance at school, and following your family’s rules. But this doesn’t give you carte blanche to invade your child’s privacy when it’s not warranted. Sometimes you’ll know straight up what your kid is into, but at other times he may be somewhat secretive. All parents have been faced with anxiety about their children’s secret lives, and when given the chance to invade, some do and some don’t.

Let’s say that you come home from work, lay your coat down on the table, and notice a half-opened crumpled piece of notebook paper, clearly written in your 12-year-old daughter’s handwriting and begging to be read by you. It’s just sitting there. If she really wanted to keep it private, wouldn’t she have either thrown it away or put it in her bedroom? Is this her preteen way of asking you to read it, is it a cry for help, or a method of communicating with you? Or is she just so darn self-absorbed at this time in her life that she either didn’t notice that she left it out or couldn’t bother to dispose of it?

You have a decision to make and not much time to make it. Softball practice is over in a half-hour and soon she’ll be bursting through the front door demanding dinner. What do you do? Compromise your trust relationship by snooping and reading the note, or leave it alone, forever wondering if it would have given you a window into your daughter’s private world, one that she’s been keeping more to herself as she grows toward adolescence.

To Snoop or Not to Snoop?
Let’s say that she’s a good kid with decent grades but could stand to study more. Lately it seems that she’s living on the phone and recently has been taking the cordless to her room to chat with her friends. And then there’s that boy from outside the neighborhood who tends to call just a little too late each night — what’s his mother thinking?! Oh, you could go on and on, whipping yourself into a frenzy before you know it. Why did she leave that darn note out in the first place? Should you snoop and read it, or resist the temptation and respect her privacy? It's a tough spot to be in, but take solace in realizing that you are not alone.Virtually every parent will have to make this type of decision, and trust me, it won’t be a one-timer. As your children grow and develop, make friends on their own (at times without your input or control), and communicate less with you and more with their buds, you’ll often feel left out of the loop or think that your advice is not wanted or heeded. That’s normal — kids like to be independent, in control of their friendships, and confident in their decisions and choices. What’s also normal, though, is for children to make some poor judgment calls, to use less common sense at 12 than they did at 8, and to cave in to peer pressure. And the worst part of this developmental process is that often the most important decisions (whether to experiment with drugs, to ride in cars with older friends, to skip the study session and just copy someone else’s paper) are the ones that you are not involved with or informed of. Just when children need to be communicating with you more, they generally clam up, leaving the concerned parent guessing about their child’s world and decision making.

Kids can be incredibly disorganized, lazy, and sloppy. Even those who are trying to keep things away from their parents often leave out very incriminating evidence. Trust me, they are generally not leaving it out on purpose — the phone probably rang and the note from the friend discussing the beer bash on Friday night was inadvertently left on the kitchen table. Take 16-year-old Nelson, who left some marijuana and rolling papers under the passenger seat of his mother’s car. When Mom found them, she considered alerting the police but chose to flush the stuff down the toilet instead. And Nelson had the gall to be angry with her for “throwing away his perfectly good pot!” So don’t assume that evidence you find was purposely left out for you and is a “call for help.” It may be, but most often it’s an oversight and the kid will be either embarrassed or furious that you found it.

Very smart, manipulative kids may even go so far as to try to pawn off their bad behavior on you. Stephanie, at the tender age of 13, was a pro at diverting the focus from herself. Steph’s parents had been concerned that she was sneaking out the window at night and had warned her that they would be watching her behavior closely. Although a pro at diversionary tactics, Stephanie was a slob at heart and tended to leave her stuff all over the house. So when Dad saw a suspicious-looking note on the foyer floor, he opened and read it. As it turned out, it concerned that night’s agenda for a quick run through the neighborhood with the hopes of meeting up with some of her friends. When her father handed her the note and demanded an explanation, the ever-on-the-offensive Steph deftly came back with, “How could you read my note? That was my property!” Boy, did she appear offended as she tried to seal the deal with, “I’m really angry with you — you owe me an apology.” Right. Here’s a kid who was plotting to sneak out, was given fair warning from her folks that they would be watching her behavior very closely, and she gets her nose bent out of shape just because Dad read a note that she left on the floor. Nice try, kid.

Kids can be very sneaky. So if the situation arises where you believe that your child is considering or engaging in dangerous or illegal activity, you must take action. First, try to open discussion about the inappropriate behavior, including what your concerns are and what you want to see changed. If that doesn’t work and you’re still worried that your child may engage in illegal, immoral, or dangerous activity, then you may need to snoop. This can take the form of reading the diary, checking the kid’s pockets for notes or drugs, looking over e-mails sent or received (or at least limiting or disabling the Internet), and monitoring telephone conversations. Don’t expect your child to be happy about any of this — he will most likely be angry and upset with your snooping — but remember who drew “first blood” and started the whole mess: the child!

Living the LawSo, let’s get down to some basic “to snoop or not to snoop” guidelines.

Respect your child’s privacy and possessions. Until your son or daughter proves to you that they are exhibiting poor judgment in significant and important areas of their life, you should respect their privacy. Trust takes a long time to develop in family (and other) relationships, yet it can be so quickly destroyed. Remember that, and also remember your own childhood. Did your Mom or Dad have a habit of rifling through your stuff, either covertly or overtly? How did you feel about it? Probably not good, and you resented the invasions of your privacy, especially if they weren’t warranted!

Clarify what is and what is not snooping behavior on your part. Some behaviors that are considered as nosy by kids may be thought of as appropriate by their folks. (See “What Kids Consider to Be Snooping” in next week’s excerpt.) Be sure to check this out with your own children so that everyone is square on the rules. Discuss what is private and what isn’t — the child’s diary, journal, yearbook, notes from friends, and e-mails sent and received. How about possessions stored in dresser drawers, under the bed, or in clothing pockets? Even if you do discuss this, some sticky situations may still crop up. What happens if the kid asks you to do his laundry and in emptying his jeans pockets you find a $50 bill? Problem is, he shouldn’t have a penny to his name. Or you are listening to the messages on the family answering machine and one of your daughter’s friend’s comments on the outfit that she wore to the party last night, the one that you expressly told her not to go to. Or while helping your 8-year-old clean out his room, you stumble upon a Game Boy cartridge that you know doesn’t belong to him, and the family has a rule prohibiting borrowing toys or possessions from other kids. I believe that these situations are fair game for parents to deal with as part of the Don’t Be Afraid to Snoop law. In these cases, the child either knows about or has asked for your involvement and therefore your “finds” are not the fruit of snooping. They are the result of carelessness on your kid’s part.

Decide when you must take action. Although the goal is to trust and respect your child’s choices, possessions, and activities, the line is crossed when the kid ventures into behaviors that are either dangerous physically or emotionally, or when illegal actions are being contemplated. These are important areas and cannot be overlooked. Your parental obligations are to provide, guide, and protect. If your child is placing herself in harm’s way, you must intervene. And that may involve some serious snooping. What might trigger immediate action?

  • Doing or dealing drugs
  • Drinking alcohol or huffing inhalants
  • Sneaking out and joyriding in Dad’s car
  • Running away from home as a solution to family squabbles or as a reaction to being grounded for missing curfew
  • Skipping school or classes
  • Chatting on the Internet with strangers, especially if personal meetings are suggested

These are the types of significant and important issues that need to be addressed — when the kid has provided evidence that something dangerous or illegal is happening or about to occur. As a concerned parent, you must intervene. But before you dig through the dresser drawers, check for the journal under the mattress, or explore the depths of your son’s book bag, it’s important to confront the child directly, giving him the option of ’fessing up before you use surreptitious investigative tactics.

Use above-board communication to deal with the issue. If you get wind that Junior is using drugs, you must do something about it. Although some kids can “experiment” with substances, decide that it’s a stupid idea, and move on, many get in over their heads. As a mom and a psychologist, I take a very dim view of child substance use and suggest that other parents do the same (). Confront your child with your evidence and concerns but don’t expect an immediate confession. If you find yourself getting nowhere in the discussion, drop the debate and take the kid to the pediatrician’s office for a drug screen (kicking and screaming if need be). He will be less than thrilled with the idea and with you, but at least you’re being honest and direct with him, even though he’s been sneaky and deceptive with you.

Trust your gut instinct. If your middle schooler, for instance, starts acting sketchy about school and you get that feeling that something just isn’t right (plus your best friend saw the kid hanging around the convenience store at lunchtime), ask him if he’s been skipping and allow him the opportunity to salvage your trust. If he ’fesses up, there should be a consequence given, plus a failsafe school-attendance system instituted to make sure that he doesn’t play hooky again. If he is still in denial mode, check with the school attendance officer to get the facts (whether your child wants you to or not — remember, he started this!). Then either apologize for your error if you are wrong or institute the negative consequence if the kid has been skipping school.

Protect your child. Staying on top of your child’s behavior may be tough, but try to keep the communication open, especially when you suspect that something is awry. If you continue to receive denials, counterattacks, or red-herring attempts to sidetrack you from the issue (be it sneaking out, drugs, skipping school, dating without permission), and direct discussion with your kid isn’t working, you may need to be sneaky yourself. Hey, you’ve given the kid fair warning, and he is continuing his involvement in dangerous, illegal, or highly inappropriate activities. Remember, sometimes we have to protect our children even from themselves.

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.