To read or not to read?

Take it from me and keep your kid’s diary off limits

I learned this one the hard way. One time (OK, maybe more than once) I snuck into my daughter’s room when she was at school, and I read her diary.

It wasn’t pretty.

I read about her thinking and feeling stuff that made me worry more about her, and that put me between a rock and a hard place. Do you go to your child and say: “Hey honey, when I was browsing through your diary the other day, I found out.…” Kind of a problematic conversation starter. If the stuff you find out, by whatever means, includes info that your child is contemplating harming herself, all bets are off privacy-wise. No child has a right to confidentiality if self-harm is on their radar.

If you have no prior reason to believe your child is in danger of self-harm, think — before you read — about how much damage you’d do to the trust in your relationship if you talk to them about something you violated their privacy to discover.

Absent self-harm, how much privacy do they have a right to, and should you read their diary? To make this question a little tougher, let’s lump in Facebook with their diary. By which I mean that most kids today use their Facebook page, pics and profile as their diary. You want to know what they’re posting, just like I wanted to know what was in that diary. This is a natural parental urge, just like the urge we all have to control everything they do and keep them safe for every nano-second of their lives.

But like many other “natural” urges, this one has to be resisted. It’s like the story of my daughter and the bicycle. When she was in university and living downtown a few years ago, she would come home for dinner and then ride her bike back downtown afterwards. I would make her phone me when she arrived safely. She’d say (correctly): “Mummy, I ride my bike all over town every other night and you don’t make me phone you when I get home.”

She was right, and the reason had to do with boundaries. Get some of those. They’ve been both difficult to acquire and very helpful to my relationship with my kids as they grew through adolescence.

Boundaries are what give you the distance that allows you not to make her phone you every night when she gets home, if she’s in university. As parents, our tendency is to hover. (They don’t call us helicopters for nothing.) And it’s harder to hover from a distance.

Committing to taking a little distance allows us to stop and think before we go snooping in their drawers and on their computer, and the snooping is not good. Don’t let yourself walk into the room and look for the diary. Resist that “natural parental urge.” Use your impulse control. And when your kid un-friends you on Facebook, let it go. Yes, for sure she’s un-friending you ’cause she’s posting stuff she doesn’t want you to see. And that’s something you have to let go, as part of the process of letting your child go — based on the understanding that, unpleasant as it is for us, their growth requires our letting go — and trusting that we’ve raised them well and they are on their way to learning how to make good choices for themselves, with a few bad ones thrown in to help them learn from experience.

That placing of distance between us and them is a required part of growing up — for kids. The core task of adolescence is to individuate and separate from parents, to find their own self, separate and independent from us, and to do that, they need some boundaries around their mental, physical and social space. So paws off that diary.

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