Parenting Solutions: Children Need Privacy to Become Self-Reliant Adults

Parents can honor a child’s “personal space” while maintaining supervision and providing guidance.

Illustration by Joel Snyder

“Hi, Son, what happened at school today?”

“Nothin,'” mumbles 12-year-old Jesse as he puts down his books.

“Well, then…how are you?” asks his mother.

“Fine, Mom.”

Jesse looks happy but heads for his room and closes the door behind him. Can this be the same boy who used to want to share every detail of his day?

Jesse’s mother had panicked when her two older children tacked “Keep Out!” signs on their bedroom doors, but now she knows Jesse is not necessarily upset or rejecting her. More likely he’s just growing up.

He is becoming more capable and independent every day, and in a few years he will control certain aspects of his life on his own. During this stage of development, he needs and deserves more privacy.

Yet a boy his age also needs plenty of guidance, because adolescence is a time when he can get into the most trouble. At the same time, adolescents push hardest for privacy and this can seem like a huge double bind for adults.

Over-vigilant parents who continually interfere, or parents who do the opposite and withdraw, represent two extremes. Fortunately, there are positive ways to keep up adult input and still let a child develop naturally.

UNDERSTAND A CHILD’S NEED FOR PRIVACY

Children have to discover who they are apart from their families in order to establish a healthy and strong sense of personal self.

“Children approaching puberty are often preoccupied trying to figure out what’s in store for them as adults,” notes Dr. Aaron Kipnis, a California child psychologist and author of Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help Bad Boys Become Good Men.“It’s their time to dream,” he says, “to grow from the child who must do what he is told, to the young adult who must reason for himself.”

BE WILLING TO DISCUSS RATHER THAN DICTATE

“When adults show they are open to discussion and willing to do some negotiating, children feel far less resentment when adults do have to interfere,” points out Dr. Kipnis.

Instead of making demands such as, “You can’t be playing video games for hours alone in your room. Now go outside and play!” he suggests using open-ended statements such as, “When you play video games for hours at a time in your room, I worry about you. How can you help me feel O.K. about this?”—then sitting down to go over the issue and find solutions.

ACCURATELY REFLECT A CHILD’S INCREASING INDEPENDENCE BACK TO HIM

A child grows more confident and responsible each time an adult acknowledges how much he is maturing. When parents say, “You can have all the privacy you show us you can handle,” then allow increasing appropriate privacy as the child earns parents’ trust, a child can experience autonomy and freedom on the path ahead to adulthood.

Fifteen-year-old Steven called his parents to ask if he could go with friends to a party at which there would be no adults—something his parents had clearly said “no” to a few months earlier. Steven was showing responsibility by asking, so his father responded with a question of his own: “What do you think?”

“Umm … I can’t go, right?”

“That’s right, Son,” his father replied.

Steven called back a few minutes later to say he was coming home and bringing some friends. His parents promptly ordered pizza for everyone and had plenty of praise for their son the next day.

HELP CHILDREN PROTECT THEIR TERRITORY AND RESPECT THEIR RIGHT TO IT

When siblings share a room, separate desks and storage areas should be assigned and respected. A child’s room is his castle—with the understanding it will never be totally off-limits to parents. Children’s rooms should never be locked in such a way that a parent can’t unlock them from the other side if necessary, but occasional closed doors allow appropriate privacy. Tree houses, clubhouses, and forts can provide younger children with kids-only spaces away from adults.

Learning to share is essential, but so is learning to respect private property—starting with one’s own. When we help children maintain ownership of what is theirs, they grow to respect others’ privacy and property as well.

KEEP UP FAMILY-CENTERED ACTIVITIES AND ADULT GUIDANCE

Respecting children’s rights to privacy is not the same as relinquishing parental control or losing touch. Stay involved in each child’s day-to-day activities, such as sports, hobbies, and Scouting. Extend family boundaries. Make a child’s friends feel at home, get to know them, and include them in family activities and outings.

Inadequate supervision can, in rare cases, result in juvenile delinquency. No matter how much teens may decide to go it alone, keep showing an interest in their lives without being overly intrusive and keep on insisting on doing things as a family even if they seem reluctant.

USE STRICTER PRIVACY RULES AWAY FROM HOME.

“I would allow far less privacy when children are away from home,” cautions Honolulu child psychologist Vicky Stoddard. “Parents should always know who their children are out with and what they are doing when they are away from home.”

The Internet should also essentially be considered “away from home,” since it opens children up to unpredictable risks.

When quizzed by his grandparents as to what he wanted for graduation from junior high school, Derek asked for a laptop computer with Internet service. The grandparents called his parents to find out if that was O.K. with them.

The result: Derek was asked by his parents to continue using the family computer, kept in plain view, for research, e-mail, and other Internet-supported activities, but was told that his grandparents would happily buy him a laptop minus the Internet service.

STAY INFORMED WITHOUT SNOOPING

Learn when each child is usually in the mood to talk. Sarah finds it hard to talk with either of her parents unless she and the parent are doing something together like gardening or dishes. Her brother Joseph is talkative before bed, so his parents allow extra time for saying good night.

Try initiating conversations rather than asking questions—which can seem like interrogation. “I hope your history teacher liked your great paper!” can lead to a discussion, while “Did you turn in your history paper?” is likely to get a “yes” or “no” response.

Communication patterns start at an early age. For example, parents who attentively, quietly listen whenever their child wants to share with them will build lasting open communication.

Away at college, Eagle Scout Cal Johansen still has long phone conversations with his parents. “When he was 4,” Cal’s mother says, “I listened to hours of his Godzilla stories. When he was 10, I heard about every new video game. Now he calls to tell us about his classes, dating, and career plans.”

Keep adult antennae up for children’s conversations that take place around you. Best friends Joe, Steven, and Andy talk openly as they are driven to and from school each day. All three carpooling mothers actively share any overheard information that will help them parent more effectively—for example, news on people or subjects mentioned in passing that could help a parent launch a needed discussion.

WALK THE COMMON-SENSE MIDDLE PATH

Cub Scouting’sBSA Family Activity Book,Supply No.33012A, contains a variety of activities designed to help strengthen a family—whether it is a two-parent, single-parent, or nontraditional family. Activities help family members develop character, learn responsibility, strengthen family relationships, learn through fun and adventure, and handle difficult situations. After completing 10 activities, families may receive the BSA Family Award.

While distancing from parents helps establish one’s own identity, no child, even a teen, wants to feel completely on his own. Privacy is something a child desires, not something he wants thrust on him. Timing is everything.

Conscientious adults can continually assess how much privacy each child can handle, encourage the child’s independence accordingly, and still provide adult guidance.

Remember Jesse, the 12-year-old who disappeared into his room after school? His mother knew his zipped lip and closed door signaled his need for some space right then.

Because she is in touch with his life and knows he is developing in good, appropriate ways, she wasn’t surprised when Jesse reappeared saying: “Mom, the class trip today was great! Guess who sat by me on the bus!”

Writer Diana Lynn lives in Salyer, Calif.


TIME TO INTERFERE: WHEN TO CALL OFF PRIVACY AGREEMENTS

Parents should actively monitor—and intervene, when necessary, in the life of—any child who is

  • having trouble in school.
  • having increased and unexplainable difficulty with friends or family.
  • changing personal habits for the worse, not eating, oversleeping, or the like.
  • becoming friends with high-risk children.
  • refusing all communication.
  • continually exhibiting depression, anger, or disrespect.
  • often leaving clues behind, like opened diaries or letters, that may be calls for help.
  • showing evidence of engaging in any unsafe, immoral, or illegal activity.

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