Preteens crave closed doors

  • Peter Jensen / The Baltimore Sun
  • Monday, October 27, 2003 9:00pm
  • Life

By the time children hit sixth grade, they should probably be seen and heard, but must they be spied on?

Never has privacy been a bigger issue for parents of middle schoolers. From instant messaging on the Internet to private cell phones, pre-teens have more ways than ever to keep Mom and Dad out of the loop. And parents seemingly never have been more intent on monitoring their offspring — and they’ve got the computer software and old-fashioned snoopiness to do it.

"I want to know everything they’re doing and then I don’t," says Carla Bohannan, an Annapolis, Md., mother of three whose youngest, Emily, is 11 years old. "As baby boomers, I know the things we did without our parents knowing. Now, we know. We know the things they could get involved in."

Child psychologists say it’s perfectly normal for children to begin to crave privacy by 11. They are taking the first steps toward independence and a healthy separation from parents. Telephone conversations get hushed. Descriptions of school days get a bit sketchy. The bedroom door stays shut in the evenings.

But it’s also a vulnerable time. Sex, drugs and alcohol loom on the horizon. Lose touch with a child now, and the teenage years ahead can look truly frightening.

"The world just seems to dictate that you watch children closer these days," says Peggy Peroutka, 44, a Cockeysville, Md., mother of three.

The media are filled with cautionary tales. Studies show that kids are more likely to become delinquent when their parents are uninvolved in their lives. In the summer movie "Thirteen," a nice-girl middle-schooler turns wildly self-destructive while her well-meaning but harried single mom flounders, uncertain whether to clamp down or cozy up to her daughter.

But when are parents closely monitoring their children and when are they snooping? Conducting a nightly third-degree or reading private diaries or regularly searching rooms for contraband might be making as big a mistake. Such heavy-handed tactics can shut off lines of communication and undermine trust without revealing much, experts say.

"You may simply be compounding your problems," said Margaret Sagarese, co-author of a new book about privacy issues for 10- to 15-year-olds, "What Are You Doing in There?"

"You can get the scoop on your child without snooping. When parents ask, ‘Where are you going?’ They hear, ‘Nowhere,’ " said Sagarese, an Islip, N.Y., mother of one. "Who are you going with? ‘Nobody.’

"This is part of their modus operandi at this age. It doesn’t mean they are up to no good, but it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t supervise."

Pam Somerville, 51, of Stoneleigh, Md., a stay-at-home mother of four girls, says she’s just grateful that her youngest, a 13-year-old, will soon be leaving middle school behind.

There have been times when she’s gone through their backpacks (to check on school work), read the inside of notebook covers (to see scribbled notes) and looked over their shoulders when they were on the computer sending e-mail to friends.

"The thing I resent most is what my kids have to deal with in terms of sex and drugs," she says. "I didn’t know about half this stuff until college. It’s really hard."

Sagarese says the ideal solution is for parents to stay informed but not snoop. Keep tabs on your children — list everyone’s activities on a kitchen calendar, for instance. It’s a device that can be "habitual but nonthreatening," she says.

"You have to look at their world, knock on their door, and be invited in," Sagarese said. "Just look at the walls of your child’s room to find their interests. The evidence of who they are and what they’re interested in is all around."

Dr. John Walkup, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, agrees that the best parental supervision relies on watchfulness and not interrogation. If you’re attuned to your child, he says, you don’t need to constantly interview her.

"If you supervise well, you create a risk range. I know what my kids does, his interests, his friends. It’s not intrusive, you just know," Walkup said. "You stand in your kid’s shoes and see what they face every day. It doesn’t require a lot of discussion. It’s observing and analyzing. It’s a cognitive skill, not an emotional one."

Yet too many parents don’t supervise well, he said. They either find their children so difficult to understand that they become overprotective and restrictive, or they prefer to remain oblivious and ignore the children unless obvious problems surface.

"The process of supervision never ends for a parent," Walkup said. "Human beings are pretty predictable. When the cat’s away, the mice will play."

Still, even a watchful parent will face a lot of difficult choices. Should a child have a private e-mail account? How much does a parent need to know about a child’s friends? How do you monitor the onset of puberty and still allow a child some modesty?

"The real art in parenting comes from being able to present boundaries but not stifle," said Ginna Alderman, a ninth-grade guidance counselor at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, Md. "High school is designed for freedom. Middle school is a time when parents need to stay vigilant."

Alderman’s a mother of four — two teenage boys, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. More than once, her eldest child has expressed annoyance with her policies — including her habit of calling parents when he has been invited to a party, to make sure, among other things, no alcohol is being served.

"At first, he’d say, ‘Please don’t. You’re the only mother who does this,’ " she said. "Now, he’s used to it. He just rolls his eyes."

Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University’s Child Study Center, says no 11-year-old should assume he or she has some inalienable right to privacy. Or that their room or life is "somehow out of bounds," he said.

But he stops short of offering specific tips on policies. Such parameters depend on individual circumstances, on what a child can handle and what level of maturity is involved.

"Guidelines need to be set. It’s sound policy to limit the use of the phone, to have a computer in a public room rather than a child’s bedroom, or to monitor their TV viewing habits," Gallagher said. "Mostly, it’s helpful for parents to know what kids are doing. They don’t need to go into the niggling details."

Dan Hoover, a child psychologist with the Menninger Clinic in Houston, suggests that while moms and dads will always face a balancing act with privacy and middle school, they should keep a single fact in mind: Parents still hold all the power.

"The fact is, a parent can have more influence on a child’s behavior than anything else they can do, including peer relationships," he said. "Maybe there are some cases where parents become too intrusive, but that’s a small minority. Personally, if I have to err, I err on the side of greater supervision. Even if you hurt feelings or go too far, you’ll probably do better if you watch closer."

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