Where do we draw the line…

…between being a conscientious parent and just plain invading your child’s privacy?

Having grown up in a relatively open household the one or two occurrences of weird internet charges due to connecting to a rather unseemly and over-the-top expensive dial-up number were chalked up to my own carelessness and they stood as lessons to be learned from. My internet activity wasn’t monitored (thankfully, otherwise I could have been responsible for my mother’s early demise) and, despite the fact that I was only 14, I was treated like an adult in this regard. If I screwed up or racked up massive charges, I paid for them. I may be slightly biased in this (only slightly as I’m used to being objective about my many discussions even as they relate directly to me) but this approach benefited me immensely.

These days, however, it appears that this is the solution.

I realise, as they mention in the article, that these kinds of monitoring applications already exist for desktop computers and are part of an already accepted practice of monitoring children’s internet access to protect them from potential online threats and to keep them from accessing material the parents would rather they not access, generally of an adult nature but not always and it is in this susceptibility to abuse and over-zealous censorship that I disagree with their use and why I am quite set against the app mentioned in the article.

I am not a parent yet and I realise that everyone’s parenting style is unique and people are extremely sensitive to being told how to raise their children but there is one universal attitude one should have when raising children and that is not being over-zealous in protecting them from the world around them. It is vitally important that children experience the real world and learn about it and begin to grapple with it for themselves. The perfect analogy is that of an animal raised in captivity finding itself out in the wild without ever having had any experience of it and not being able to cope properly or understand it’s situation. It’s also important for everyday people too, which stresses the importance of starting this trend in childhood. It’s easy to crystallise this concept in one phrase: don’t lie to them.

It’s a fairly simple concept but people seem to have extraordinary issues with putting it into practice. If a 6-year-old asks you out of the blue “what’s anal sex?” or just “what’s sex?” (if they haven’t come across that gem already by that age) don’t brush it off as a ridiculous question, don’t ignore it and above all don’t be embarrassed or disgusted by it. It doesn’t matter what your personal opinion is on whatever your child asks you, your job is to educate them, not inculcate beliefs in them. You teach them how to believe and how to think, not what to believe or think. This distinction and its lack of widespread adherence is, in my highly biased and subjective (yet informed) opinion, one of the prime contributors to the stupification of modern society, especially American society. By denying a child the opportunity to grapple with the real world around them you are cultivating a lack of respect for reality and, most critically, a lack of understanding of the real world and it’s intricacies.

I am, however, speaking primarily about teenagers here, as the issue is primarily of internet censorship, over-zealous monitoring and privacy invasion which is less of an issue with younger children, although one could extend the concept of “teenager” as low as age 11. It pretty much all depends on when they become aware of the exciting differences between girls and boys whether on their own time-scale or through their friends and/or schoolmates.

Stepping away for a moment from the issue of the internet and porn, the application in question here is touted as being a defence against cyber-bullying (e.g. bullying via email, sms or IM) and also “sexting” and grooming (by paedophiles). Maybe I’m just being naive and idealistic but surely there is a much better way to protect your child from paedophiles than to simply stand over them with a virtual iron fist monitoring every single one of their communications just in case they happen to be contacted by a random stranger who may have ulterior motives…? Surely teaching them how to think and how to interact with people and giving them a realistic grasp of the real world is a much better approach to allow them to defend themselves than to have to submit to your seemingly never-ending domination of their lives and freedom?

Furthermore, this is a wholly ineffective method of protection (completely aside from the fact that it shows a wholly offensive attitude towards the child themselves and their independence). Examining the analogy of sex, do you monitor them with a camera 24/7 and prevent them from having sex just in case they happen not to use protection and end up in an unfortunate and unwanted situation OR (like reasonable people) do you teach them everything you can about the reality of sex and human physiology and teach them about contraception? Applicable to both situations, which is the better and more effective method in the long-term? Which method will remain effective into adulthood? Which method will continue to protect them in the event of your inability to interact with them directly? (e.g. divorce, separation, illness, death etc…)

As regards bullying, something with which I have personal experience, to simply offer blanket protection from bullying is a dangerous and ultimately detrimental thing to do. I am not generalising from anecdotal personal experience but from the point of view of a general understanding of developmental psychology both from my own studies and from knowledge gained from people who work in this area. Given a specific setback, no two people will react in exactly the same way but it can be said that there are people who react positively to negative situations, learning from the experience and assimilating it in order to move on and become bettered by the experience and then there are people who react negatively to these situations becoming swallowed up in negative feelings, such as guilt, remorse, feelings of a lack of self-worth etc… and they become consumed by these experiences. By and large it is hard to change people from these general reactions, it tends to be a thing of perspective, optimism versus pessimism and these are not positions that are easily changed. As such, in the area of bullying, aside from mutual education and intervention of the relevant authorities when warranted it has to be said, lamentably, that quite often it is better to simply endure the situation and learn from it.

This has been my personal experience and I would be tangibly lessened in my feelings of self-worth and my self-confidence had I never been subjected to that experience. I learned from that that although other people are harsh to condemn that which they see as outside and foreign and react with derision and scorn, that does not have to be how I view myself. I came to become proud of my uniqueness; so unique was I that other (uninformed, brain-dead) people had no choice but to deride me for it and after a time that uniqueness ceased to be my only defining feature and people began to see past their own insecurities and their fears and embrace the individual they saw before them, not the outsider. Unfortunately this was a long, hard road and though I would not wish it on anyone, anyone who can travel that road and come through the experience should be proud for it is one of the many enriching lessons life can offer us. They’re generally rare.

Moving back to the realm of internet porn and “sexting” (not to brush off the issue of bullying as unimportant, which it is not, but it is not the focus of this post) I think nearly everyone knows from personal experience, the more a parent tries to ban something the child/teen enjoys and/or wants the higher the resistance and quite often the higher the incidence of the activity despite the parent’s attempts. Now I’m not going to argue that since the parent is generally ineffective in their attempts that this make the activity okay, if we are talking about drug use or other antisocial tendencies that not just the parent involved would object to then of course these activities should be tackled, but if we are talking about a 15-year-old who is sending or exchanging naughty texts or emails or IMs it is vital (and I cannot stress this more) to understand:

1) this is the child/teen exploring their sexuality and their desires
2) this is the child/teen expressing both their feelings and their desires
3) this is not bad behaviour, this is merely curiosity fuelled by normal, healthy urges
4) suppression of sexual desires is extremely detrimental to personal development (ask any psychologist)
5) suppression of a person’s free expression is detrimental to personal development

As such, if you act heedlessly to simply stifle their actions, blind to the effects it will undoubtedly have upon the child’s conception of themselves and their sexual identity, without recourse to simply discussing the topic with them and both understanding their view and helping them to understand your views and those of society (as and when it is applicable) then I would say, again based on my subjective biased opinion (informed in this case by an understanding of developmental psychology), that this would be the epitome of bad parenting.

The issue of privacy is also an important one, and one that a lot of parents seem to ignore. One can easily bring to mind the “my house, my rules” type of parenting that easily disregards any semblance of respect for the privacy of a child/teen when it suits but I would argue that any entity capable of forming intimate social connections and complex thoughts and feelings based on those and other interactions has a right to privacy where those are involved. Many parents will wilfully invade a child/teen’s privacy and justify it with the every popular “in your best interest” quip. No, I disagree. The best interest of a child/teen is their successful independent growth into a critical thinking, independent person capable of articulating their thoughts and feelings. When you destroy their concept of privacy you act against this interest. Instead of demanding transparency as a right, earn it by giving them the respect they deserve as an entity capable of forming intimate social connections and complex thoughts and feelings.

As a parent one is in charge of the development of what will in most cases turn out to be a being with a will of it’s own which rarely submits easily to external direction from an authority figure. As such, it is a very fine line to walk between maintaining control in order to guide towards positive outcomes and experiences and maintaining a certain distance and lack of control in order to allow free expression and thought and, most importantly, independence. My conclusion is that, based on the short-lived and utterly detrimental nature of censorship and monitoring policies, education in personal responsibility and independence are the best methods for ensuring the protection of your child, not some 1984-like system that allows you to monitor their location and track incoming and outgoing communications. Good parent-child relationships are democratic in nature, not Orwellian; full of give and take, not commands and unflinching subservience.

I’ve lectured enough for now. The most I can hope for is that some of what I am saying resonates with some of you and it causes you to reflect upon current or future relationships with your (future, in some cases) children. They say the children are our future, as if that were some sort of astounding revelation, however the important thing to take away from that is that if we, as their stewards, fail in our (conceptually) simple task of encouraging independent growth we doom both ourselves and future generations.



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