Parenting: The Case for Keeping Out

We have the technology to spy on our kids. That doesn't mean we should use it

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Illustration by Dan Page for TIME

I have two daughters: One an open book, one a locked box. So the question of privacy is a challenging one. How much do kids need? How much should we give? How do we prepare them to live in a world where the very notion of privacy opens a generational chasm? As adults, we hunger for it, shuddering at how our shopping is tracked and our searches searched and horrified that anyone can go online and find a satellite picture of our house. And then there are our children, who happily stand exposed in the public square, posting secrets on their Facebook walls, yet remain eternally elusive to the people who sleep in the next bedroom over.

Mine is famously a generation of worrisome and worrying parents, fearful for our children's futures and so obsessed with safety that we soak them in antibacterial soaps from birth. We seat-belt and helmet them, childproof and V-chip them, buy whole-grain cupcakes and hypoallergenic sheets and instruct them in stranger danger. Except now we know that our obsessions may have made them more vulnerable, that a little dirt is a good thing, that kids may be developing more allergies because we've raised them too clean. They get older and smarter and restless and start poking around in the wider world. And now the challenge to us is both technological and philosophical. In how many ways can we continue to watch over them? And should we learn to stop trying and let them stomp or glide or purposefully stride away from us and our anxious hoverings?

Anyone with the right mix of parental paranoia and entrepreneurial moxie can make a fortune by selling parents the equipment we think will keep us one step ahead of our kids. Trust but verify, we said when we negotiated arms-control treaties; a teenager can be a resourceful adversary as well. So there is a kit that lets you sneak a few strands of hair from their brush and test them for OxyContin. And the gadget you attach to the car that monitors their speed or won't let the ignition start until they've passed a Breathalyzer test. And the cybersitters and Web watchers that log every message and keystroke. A new device called SecuraPAL (Personal Automated Locator) lets parents create SecuraFences online by clicking and dragging a box on a Google map around their home, their school, the Little League field, their friends' homes: if a child enters or leaves a SecuraFence area, you get an e-mail or text-message alert.

As a parent, I totally understand this impulse. But increasingly, I think it creates false confidence more than actual control. Our children will outwit us if they want; for when it comes to technology, they hold the higher ground. Unlike other tools passed carefully and ceremonially from one generation to the next — the sharp scissors, the car keys — this is one they understand better than we do. What's more, they know it: Why else would we rely on them to set up our cell phones and reboot the computer? I keep telling myself that we either have taught them judgment or haven't, have instilled values or haven't. We can't indefinitely rely on enforcement. Isn't it better to let them test the rules and take the consequences?

Most parents, if we're honest, can spot our own fingerprints at our children's crime scenes. When Ethan lies about handing in his homework, when Emma sneaks her phone for late-night texting, they're often rebelling against pressures that come at least partly from us. This is not to defend their actions, only to remind us that if we act as if we don't trust our kids, it may invite them to be less trustworthy. Most of us were probably less than immaculately honest as teenagers; it's practically encoded into adolescence that you savor your secrets, dress in disguise, carve out some space for experiments and accidents and all the combustible lab work of becoming who you are.

So let us pause and praise dirt. And sneakiness. And normal youthful messmaking. Let us even praise the very tools and technologies that make us crazy. Thanks to Facebook and its nutty quizzes, I know that my mysterious older daughter, if asked, What kind of candy are you?, is a Hershey bar; she is also the goddess Artemis, Elmo, a poppy ("childlike and carefree"), a double-neck guitar and a chocolate Lab; her eyes say she's happy even when she's not; she should be living in the Middle Ages and has a shy, melon-colored personality. These are not things I would ever have thought to ask, or that she would ever tell me. But she and the laptop have a very trusting relationship.