Certainly, snooping through your children’s mail, peeking into their diaries, checking their Internet browsing history or reading their chat transcripts may not seem the nice mommy or daddy thing to do. But, as children take their havoc-creating potential to seriously destructive levels, how do you ensure you know what’s going on?
Of course, there’s all the get-them-to-talk-to-you, keep channels of communication open and share their world kind of thing. But there are still a million ways in which even “sensible” kids can be compelled to explore the forbidden. It’s something you do need to watch out for, just as you would look out for a toddler and that exposed electric plug point that always seems to draw his attention. The real question is: Why should it be any different just because your kids are now teenagers and can paste “Keep Out” signs on their bedroom door? There is still a universe of metaphorical electric plug points out there.
Web watch: Is it necessary to keep tabs on your child’s cyber life?
As for me, when I read Michael Crichton’s Next, where Georgia Bellarmino discovers her daughter injecting herself with fertility drugs in order to sell her eggs for extra cash, all in the sacred privacy of her teenage room, I vowed I would obey no dictum that keeps me out of my children’s lives.
Being too dignified to stoop to spying is silly. It’s like being a medieval knight in the age of technological warfare. And it can lead to disaster. At a recent book club meeting that discussed Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, all the parents in the group found themselves tormented by one question, “How could Mary, Peter’s mother, not have known?”
Mary was a good mother in every way. But, really, she didn’t have a clue. She didn’t know that her younger son Peter was traumatized, that he was bullied both by his elder brother and by everybody in his school. And that he spent hours locked up in his bedroom, designing video games that killed the school bullies and then real-life bombs and guns that would culminate in a school shooting. A single investigative trip by mom or dad to Peter’s bedroom could have nipped the whole plot in the bud.
This is not to say every child who is locked in his bedroom is plotting the next big disaster. But really, the Internet is a big bad place and that is something parents ought to know. That, and the fact that computers, especially as far as kids are concerned, are no longer “cool”. Apart from briefly productive patches of project research, computers, for the most part, are used really as complete time-pass machines. So, when you say, “Oh, what to do? My son, he spends ALL his time on his computer”, implying in a proud parent way that your five- or 15-year-old is a little Einstein in the making, what it really means is, “My child is addicted to time-wasting, eye-straining computer games (yes, yes, there’s the whole hand-eye coordination point— what straws people cling to) and while he doesn’t spend all his time chattering on the phone, he spends it on the Net, expanding his vocabulary to wonderfully expressive short forms such as “lol” or “gtg” and writing on other people’s Facebook walls”.
They are intimate communities, these egroups—the Facebooks and the Orkuts—and a lot can go on there. A mother I know has actually joined the Facebook community her two teenage daughters are on. “I log on once a week because I like to know what’s going on,” she says. As a parent today, you have to turn cyber detective to keep tabs on your child’s life.
PARENTS, ON PEEKING
What’s right and what’s not?
The definition of snooping has changed drastically. In our time, it was okay for our parents to look into our cupboards. After all, they were checking what was going on in our lives. My daughter is now 12. For the last two or three years, she has been locking her cupboard and we have no access to it. She has her own locker, where she keeps her diaries. I cannot check her cellphone if she doesn’t like it. It’s scary how scared we are to look into her stuff. We do talk to her and just have to trust that she will not push her freedom to a place from where she will not be able to come back.
Abhigyan Jha, Independent film-maker
Privacy is a tricky question. I try not to peep into my 16-year-old son Ishaan’s bag or diaries or closed envelopes. With 10-year-old Shiv, it is different; I know he would spend days sulking, without telling anyone if something upset him. Like a guitar lesson he started and practised furiously for a week and then wanted to give up. A sneak peek into his diary revealed his teacher was horribly rude to him, so I had to confront him in my own way and get the truth out. Yes, it is okay to respect their privacy, but understand your child’s temperament. How much can he handle on his own? So sneak into his papers, and have regular chats just to make sure he hasn’t gone off the track.
Vinita Sethi, Consultant and former director, ICCI
I am their mom, so I better know what’s happening. I’m pretty open with my kids (11 and 17) and tell them that I need to know. They have to understand that we are not being nosy. After all, who can be better well-wishers than your mother and father?
If I feel something is up, I ask them. I ask one about the other—it’s easier for them to find out. Siblings are always eavesdropping on each other. They know that I do this, but ultimately they will tell on each other because they know it’s for their own good.
Ragini Prasad, Instructional designer
(As told to Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
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