With the Kids Away, the Snoop Will Prey

The house is quiet. The counters are strangely uncluttered. No dirty socks lie balled beneath the coffee table, no empty glasses litter the top. The bathroom sink remains eerily free of toothpaste streaks.

Yes, it’s the high point of our summer: all three kids are away at camp. No vacation with them is quite as restful or productive as being home alone without them. But now that I’ve thrown away the year’s school projects and washed their sheets, I’m wrestling with that difficult question that has confounded parents since the dawn of time: should I look through their stuff?

I pride myself on respecting my children’s privacy. When I was a teenager, my mother snooped through my drawers, occasionally uncovering contraband or–worse–my angsty adolescent journals. Once, when I wasn’t home, my parents actually opened a letter to me–this was in the snail mail heyday of the late 1970s–from a camp friend who they clearly didn’t trust. True, the letter described, in psychedelic detail, her experience with hallucinogens at a rock concert. But it was addressed to me! And just because she wrote me about it didn’t mean I was doing it.

So I vowed never to spy on my teenagers. And mostly, I haven’t–beyond the occasional check of each laptop’s website “History.” But with no one home, I find myself lingering in their rooms, hoping that maybe they’ve left some clue to their inner lives–a list of goals, a pack of rolling papers, a love note, a pornographic novel–lying around.

Is it snooping? I’m not opening drawers or scouring the dark recesses of the closet. Yet it does seem to fall slightly outside my basic rule of parental “creeping,” as my kids would call it: anything left in public view is fair game. An open email on the  family-room computer, a math test on the kitchen counter, a photo posted casually on a Facebook wall–these I am entitled to gawk at. But what about the text messages that flash on their phones when they’re out of the room? The pictures I might see in their drawers when I’m putting the laundry away? Are those fair game, too?

My standard was sorely tested last summer when my oldest daughter mailed home a box of belongings from Colorado, where she was spending five weeks. I left it sitting, unopened, on her desk–until she called and asked me to check and see if contained a certain pair of jeans. It didn’t, but it did harbor a pretty little journal that she had completely filled up. She must have forgotten it was in there! My fingers caressed the blue cover. I could see little scraps of paper, ticket stubs and photos peeking tantalizingly from between the pages. I confess, I opened to a random page and started reading… but almost immediately, my conscience cried out in alarm. Summoning all my willpower, I slammed the book shut and left it on her bed. Then I called and let her know how honorable I’d been.

Now, if I am being truly honest, I will acknowledge that I didn’t read her journal mainly because I’m not worried about her. She is happy, communicative, responsible, mature, self-respecting and an excellent judge of character. But if she weren’t, I’m not so sure I would have stopped myself from reading. Her younger siblings are headed for a different  kind of adolescence entirely, and I suspect I might not react with the same restraint to uncovering the gold mine of their journals.  When I was a teenager, parental snooping felt like a huge violation and an explicit expression of distrust. Now that I’m a parent, I see it as just another way of making sure your kids are okay. So, Mom and Dad, I still think you shouldn’t have read my mail. But I completely understand why you did.

About Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg spent 22 years as a journalist for Newsweek Magazine. She now works as a writer, editor, teacher, and parent of three children, with whom she strives always to maintain a varnish-free relationship.
This entry was posted in Family life, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to With the Kids Away, the Snoop Will Prey

  1. Olivia says:

    As a current teenager, I reacted rather strongly toward this post. If my parents were worried about me, I’d want them to talk to me about it (although judging by the post, I’m sure you would start out that way as well). Maybe I would be responsive, and maybe I wouldn’t, but journals…I don’t know. Journals are something else. I’d lose respect for anyone who did that to me– the only time I’ve ever read my mother’s email is when the email in question is a newsletter I could be but am not subscribed to.

  2. I understand why my parents did many of the things they did even though I am not a parent myself. But I certainly can’t believe nor, understand – even worse; forgive myself – for being the asshole I was to my siblings.

  3. Tara says:

    I’m a teenager, and this post stirred up some emotions about my privacy at home. My mom constantly sneaks around my room while I’m gone, looking through my drawers and boxes in my closet to see personal items. I’m very much a journal person, so each trip results in some personal treasure. Maybe it’s because my older brother was into drinking and sneaking out of the house late at night, but I don’t understand the need to look through my things when there’s no reason. I’d rather they just talk to me than sneak around in my room while I’m gone. I wouldn’t snoop, so I would like the same respect.

    • Tara, Thanks for writing! I totally felt the same way as a teenager, and I was a journal person too. I prefer NOT to snoop on my kids now. Mostly I haven’t. But sometimes, if they’re not talking to you and you are worried about them getting in trouble or hurting themselves, you feel like you have no choice. It’s hard being a parent! But if you keep talking to your mom maybe she won’t feel like she needs to snoop.

  4. Andrea says:

    It’s my opinion that if you read someone else’s journal, you deserve everything you learn.

    I also think that most kids are good kids who just need their own private space to work out their feelings and if they have something they need to talk to you about, they probably will talk to you or someone else who is appropriate to help them out.

  5. DH says:

    I’m not a teenager, but I’m not so far away from being one. My dad is very cool about not opening my mail, not coming in my room without knocking, etc. But my still to this day opens everyone’s mail that comes to my parent’s house. It makes me so frustrated. Especially paychecks. She says “she just wants to see how much it is”. Yet both of my parents refuse to disclose, this day, how much they make per year bc it’s “none of my business”. I wouldn’t lie to my mom if she just asked how much I made or asked to see the check. But it makes me apprehensive to share when she thinks she’s entitled to my personal information. I’m sure if your kids felt that it was ok to read your personal journal if they felt something was up, you wouldn’t take kindly to that. Honestly, I do not think you were noble for calling and saying “how noble” you’d been about only reading one page. If you snoop and try to involve yourself where you’re not wanted, eventually they’ll never talk and divulge personal information. Hence why I’ve never kept a journal. Bc I knew she’d get her hands on it. Anyways, they’re kids. They’re going to find a way to do what they want with or without your knowledge. Just give them some space and trust that your kids are the good kids they are. 🙂

  6. Heather says:

    While I do believe in giving children the benefit of the doubt, you can’t always. It may be nice to say that you trust them and you’re noble but the happy-go-lucky “oh, they’re good kids so I’m not going to look deeper” doesn’t cut it. It’s a parent’s job to raise their kids and part of that is knowing what is going on with them.

    Obviously, talking to them is preferable over snooping, but not all teenagers talk to their parents even if the parents try.

    I think that this explains why better than I ever could: http://mamapundit.com/2011/03/its-time-to-go-fully-public-with-what-really-happened-to-my-son-henry-granju/

    • Exactly! Thank you, Heather. Sometimes I’m shocked by how clueless parents are about what their children are up to, simply because “They’re good kids and I trust them!” I have a lot of respect for people who face up to what their kids are doing, no matter how horrifying. The story of Henry Granju is unbearably tragic–even though his mother didn’t hide her head in the sand. But it’s hard to explain any of this to a teenager, and I do remember why.

  7. Now, I understand why my mom usually creep into my personal things… Even my cellphone. Thank god though that it was so long ago. I am an adult now so she already gave me the privacy that I had long been asking from her since I was a teenager. c:

  8. Shayne says:

    Happened by your blog by accident and loved it. I’m a grandparent now and one of the things I’ve noticed is how different things are now with regards to bringing up kids. I just look at my own kids with their children and the instant world wide access available to the grandkids, and how more intuned they are to world at large, how more grown up they have become because of all the information out there, good, bad, and weird. I wonder if I could cope as easily now raising kids, it can all seem so mind boggling at times. All I can say is Kudos to parents bringing up children in today’s world.

  9. Aziza says:

    My mother use to do this to me. Snoop in my room every chance, check my laptop, etc. Until one day I caught her. Because of her, I haven’t written in a journal. By her snooping, she took away the only place I had to vent. Now, I don’t tell her everything…I think you need to be aware of the consequences of what could happen if your children catch you.

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