Kids' Privacy - A Parent's Lesson

There I was, minding my own business, checking my e-mail, when I noticed my daughter had used my mailbox on a weekend home from college. While I have never opened any of my children's personal mail, or listened in on their phone conversations, or read their journals without permission, I found my cursor lingering on the highlighted document.

"That's personal stuff," I cautioned myself.

"But it's in my mailbox," I rationalized.

While curiosity and good judgment seesawed in the balance, my computer settled the matter, interpreting an involuntary tremble, a mere spasm in my fingertip, as a double click on "read."

It was so easy, so quick, so almost accidental, to open my daughter's e-mail that I could still pretend I was as trustworthy as I'd always asked my kids to be, as my mother had taught me to be, as my mother herself had been.

I confess, I read the e-mail not addressed to me. I read fast, to maintain the illusion of it being a mistake. I found out my daughter had missed an arranged meeting with a cousin for a tour of her campus. I was angry and disappointed. I phoned my daughter and chewed her out.

Days later I realized how wrong it was to read her mail and how shameless I had been to then confront her with it. It was as wrong for me to do that to her as it would have been for my mother to pick up the key and open my diary - my private, treasured book with its silhouette of a pony-tailed, flare-skirted girl stitched into its plastic cover.

Trust helped me grow up. My mother had confidence in the decisions I was making even though I flirted with a rebel life as a wild and sullen teen. At night I would scribble fast and desperately in my diary, sometimes in tears, and then I would lock it with its little brass key, the key I never hid. Locking it was sufficient; I trusted my mother.

In our household trust is a corollary of respect. And I always thought I respected my kids' need for privacy, their exaggerated modesty, as well as their inside jokes and secrets. After all, I know that these are all steps necessary for autonomy. And even though I recall with pleasure that I could tell if a baby's wail meant he was hungry or she was tired, or that stiff-legged toddling led almost directly to climbing up the steps into the school bus, I can honestly say I am as ready for my children to achieve independence as they are.

I know I made a mistake with my daughter. I'm sorry and I've apologized. I value the privilege of reciprocal trust, including resisting the temptation to open the tightly folded notes I retrieve from the pockets of my 14-year-old's dirty jeans before I drop them into the washer. Just because I'm their well-meaning mother who has delighted in their childhood and who was herself once a teen, doesn't mean I'm entitled to break our fundamental rule of trust, no matter how hugely curious I may be.

* Claudia Lewis, a former special-education teacher, is a freelance writer in Mercer Island, Wash.

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