New era of snooping parents

Research shows that people who came of age in the '60s are more conservative parents.

Over three-bean salads and wheat-grass smoothies, mother and daughter Peltier are debating tough love.

"I'll come out and say it: I read my daughter's e-mails and I check to see what websites she's visited," says Dorothy Peltier, as her 17-year-old suppresses a "don't embarrass me" scowl outside the Baja Fresh Cantina here. "I think the times demand it," says Mrs. Peltier, an unemployed broker.

It is a trend that is growing. Mothers and fathers, barraged with accounts stretching from Columbine murder plans to post-9/11 copycat terrorism, say they're becoming more watchful of children in a new millennium where the standards of "normal" parenting can become shorthand for "negligent."

In fact, experts say that strategies like Mrs. Peltier's, while not necessarily the norm, suggest the emergence of a tougher approach to discipline by many parents - particularly baby boomers. Ironically, this is the group that, as adolescents, was among the most promiscuous and libertine.

The shift toward more surveillance and Sunday-school strictness could lead to a redefinition of privacy for some minors - from scrutinized diaries, to regular bedroom searches, to taped phone conversations. To detractors, it just reflects an age-old impulse by parents to overcontrol and micromanage their children's affairs - the parent as staff sergeant.

"There is a movement afoot by parents trying to deal with the issue of their children running free and parents not being aware," says Michael Obsatz, a sociologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and author of "Raising Non-violent Children in a Violent World." "In a world of increased availability of guns, drugs, violence, and media messages that normalize them, parents have gotten scared and are being more vigilant."

This week in California, a new university study of parents who came of age in the 1960s found that many parents say they have rejected the values of experimenting with sex and drugs that they grew up with. They are unapologetically resorting to snooping tactics they would have abhorred in their youth.

Can I see that diary, please?

On one level, the about-face isn't surprising. Many parents naturally become more conservative as they grow older. The country, too, is more temperate today than it was in the tie-dyed '60s.

Plus technology - from the ubiquitous cellphone to instant messaging - has given youths an infinite number of ways to communicate and parents an infinite number of reasons to play I Spy.

Yet much of the change in parental attitudes also reflects the dangers of the times, from AIDS to club drugs. Warning signals trickle out with regularity: the exposed drinking habits of Prince Harry of Britain, the Marin County youth who joins the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Florida teen who crashes a private plane into a Tampa high rise.

"These parents are reading e-mails and diaries, searching rooms for drugs and any clue that indicates their child is leading a secret life," says Elaine Bell Kaplan, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who conducted the study. "They are constantly questioning and rethinking their parenting techniques. The increased scrutiny of their teens is more out of fear for their safety than nosiness."

One mother says she hugs her son upon his return from school to smell for marijuana or alcohol. A father regularly eavesdrops on his teen's telephone conversations. Still other parents say monitoring personal writings is not off limits.

"I guess my son didn't realize what you look up [on the Internet] will automatically be saved," said one mother. "I mean, it was mind boggling what he looked at. Some of the stuff was really sick stuff. They had pictures of the O.J. murders."

The California study included white, Black, and Latino families, with incomes of $65,000 to $150,000 - and students of both public and private schools. Although the sample was limited to California, and does not indicate the habits of most American parents, observers say it indicates a shift in attitude about what is permissible and advisable by a sizable proportion of parents - perhaps 20 percent - as well as the direction more adults may follow.

"There is a very definite subset of parents who know what they themselves got away with as kids," says Furman University psychologist Paul Rasmussen, "and feel that their children will not be so lucky as to dodge the same bullets."

In Brookline, Mass., 40-something Roger Tackeff says of parenting his two pre-teen sons: "There is no question that we have much more control over our children than did our parents. My mother never asked if I was finished with my history homework ... never went to the school, and didn't know what was going on [with us]."

St. Charles, Mo., resident Dennis O'Rando went to high school in the 1960s and admits to being very much a child of those self-indulgent times.

"Anything you can imagine that went on, I was involved in just about all of it," says Mr. O'Rando, whose daughter is a high school senior.

But "things we did back then you didn't die for," he says, referring to playground scuffles that can end in gunfire these days.

For that reason, he doesn't feel guilty about occasionally searching his daughter's room - and even admits to having recorded several of her phone conversations in her wilder middle-school days. "If you're not aware of what's going on around you, you're asking for trouble."

A wise watchfulness is one thing. But to psychologist Rasmussen, there is an "epidemic of parents who are becoming over-controlling." This micromanagement carries its own risk: that youths won't grow up to manage themselves later in life.

The snooping approach may also face a backlash from kids who feel unfairly held to standards and behaviors their own parents could not meet.

"Students finding out their own parents did the very acts they are now prevented from doing compromises parental effectiveness in the long run," says James Weiss, a staff psychologist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "The other problem is that these parents are operating without a model or a map. They are sort of shooting from the hip, not basing their ideas on any effective models."

Chill out there, dad

If some parents are genuinely trying to chart a responsible course, others may be overstepping the bounds of good sense.

The USC study recounts one mother who developed a "crazy mom" routine to control her son. When he was out past her curfew at a "drug party," she got into her car wearing pajamas, hair rollers, and slippers, stood on the lawn and yelled to her son: "Mark, Mark, here I am."

"Parents who use humiliation as a discipline technique are often counterproductive," says Dr. Weiss.

He counsels another technique that he says is far too underutilized in homes across America: genuine conversation. "When we work with these kids and parents to the point of sitting down and talking over these issues, we often find that such basic conversations have never even happened."

Meaningful conversations, however, can be difficult to engineer. Greg and Kathy Wait of Palo Alto, Calif., came of age in the 1960s and now have a sophomore in high school.

"He sasses more than I ever did," she says of her son. "I never would have told my mom to 'cool it.' But all his friends talk to their parents like that. I heard one cuss out his mother when she was five minutes late picking him up."

But Mr. Wait thinks there's also a positive element in all the bluntness, at least minus the cussing. "One thing the kids have that's better than what we had is the ability to speak their minds to their parents and have us take them seriously," he says. "I simply didn't have that option."

• Craig Savoye in St. Louis and Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to New era of snooping parents
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today