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.