Parents Fail at Trust, Turn to Technology
> 7/11/2006 10:22:24 AM

The San Francisco Chronicle looked yesterday at the new trend of parents using high-tech spy technology to monitor their children. The writer, Janine Defao, offers many explanations for why parents might do something like this. Chief among these excuses is that parents feel at a disadvantage when they need to keep tabs on their tech-savvy teens. Many parents see these snooping tools as an extension of the standard safety measures one might take. Some even seem to think that not buying these devices is akin to inviting ill fate on their children. (One father responded to queries about a car monitor for his daughter with the highest of irony: "I know how I drove when I was in high school.")

There is a lot of posturing by many of the parents in the story to paint this as a fine line that they're walking, or to make it seem harmless or even in the best interests of their child. It is only when we hear from parent educator and author Jane Bluestein that we find anything approaching reasonable parenting advice. To Bluestein, monitoring children without cause or provocation will more than likely cause more problems than it resolves.

"I think it's going to add a lot of stress to a lot of relationships that really don't need it," said Bluestein, who lives in Albuquerque and wrote "Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line."

"To track kids for the sake of tracking kids -- I know it gives parents a sense of control, but I think it points to bigger problems in the relationship: mistrust, a need to control, a need to think for your kids."

It's more important, she said, "for parents to teach kids how to think and act when they're not there." But she said monitoring also could help kids to regain their parents' trust if they've violated it by breaking curfew or lying about where they're going.

While we'll get to the majority of this in a second, it's important to mention here that Bluestein's final point is a very good one, and indeed saves this entire article. The majority of these surveillance tools give parents unprecedented access to the private lives of their children, and while overall this is probably wholly unnecessary, it is also in poor judgment. That is not to say however, that there are not instances where a teenager has proven him or herself unworthy of a parent's trust. If there has been some incident, these types of measures, when kept in the open, may serve much the same role of a house arrest ankle monitor that the courts might put on a felon or suspected felon. These devices can be used to make sure that the teen is where he says he is, or maybe more importantly, isn't where he says he isn't. As Bluestein points out, through using these types of devices a child could win back the trust of their parent.

What we find though in most of the anecdotes related in the Chronicle story, is a child or children being obsessively monitored by their parents with very little or absolutely no provocation. The areas monitored run from the invasive but understandable (in car speed and location monitors or GPS equipped cell phones) to the outrageous (internet monitoring software that not only saves histories, but will record and email to parents the text of emails or instant message conversations). Speaking of her 16 and 14 year old sons, one mother who refused to be quoted in name (so as not to blow her cover), had this to say: "They may fight it, but way deep down, I think they want those boundaries that aren't there for them otherwise on the computer. It's something they need until they grow up." (To be clear, her boys do not know they are being monitored.)

Not to burst the unidentified mother's bubble, but at 16 the eldest of her son's could very well be heading off to college in a year or two, if not moving out, joining the Army or doing any number of things that official grown ups do. By that point it will be too late for him to learn much about respecting the privacy of others, restraining and protecting himself or doing any sort of exploration of boundaries that might make his mother shudder. Like the father who remembers the desire (not to mention the action) of driving recklessly as a teen but is willing to spend hundreds of dollars to "protect" his own daughter from doing the same, this mother views the internet as a vast network of scam artists and perverts who are looking to exploit her sons or expose them to pornography. For this we can probably thank Law and Order and more recently Dateline, among other television programs, for creating a paranoia and anxiety about allowing our children the freedom to grow and explore in a faster, tech-centered world. From reading this article, one might even get the idea that it is parents own anxieties and fears of what they don't understand that is fueling their zealous scrutinizing of their children's lives.

Beyond all that though, what this new trend represents is a breakdown in trust. The relationship between parents and their children is perhaps the most important in our society. It is through this bond that young children are acclimated to all that will be expected of them as functioning adults. As children grow, they also need increased freedom to explore the world and begin to define themselves as individuals. A great parent allows this process to unfold, standing by to catch a child if he happens to fall. What we see here are parents so afraid to let go, or so afraid to let their child stumble, that they build a cocoon. Until he proves himself unworthy, we need to allow that child to continue to explore. (Let's be honest, kids have been taking the car where they shouldn't be since the car was a horse and buggy, so let's not pretend it's anything new).

The web should be no different. If a kid logs on, maybe he'll see some smut or talk to some strangers who ask him uncomfortable questions in a chat room. Statistics and common sense tell us that virtually every time, that kid will walk away a little wiser. Unfortunately the only time we hear about these situations are the instances when it doesn't happen that way. In this day and age, it seems that you can't let your kid do much of anything without fearing for their mortal safety. What doesn't help matters are the companies, hovering like vultures, ready to sell you the next necessary safety product. We need to start teaching our kids about trust and responsibility. The best place to start is by telling these companies that we don't need their help looking over our kids' shoulders. We taught them to stand on their own, so that's what we're going to let them do.

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