Spies like us

The slippery slope of stealth parenting.

School has begun. It's usually my favorite time of year, and my kids are handling it pretty well, but I'm about ready to fall apart.

During orientation, a student walked the halls with braided back hair and five tattoos. Husband insisted he was a parent. Like that's good news?

The whole idea of my kids moving from a small private elementary school to a larger public middle school is frightening. I don't want to shelter them forever, but it doesn't seem so long ago that they were sweet and innocent children. Now they are rolling their eyes and asking for money. They will be meeting lots of colorful characters, and I'm balancing between allowing them freedom to grow while keeping certain boundaries in place to ensure their safety.

One of my friends, whose son is a senior in high school, wondered out loud when I might start spying on my kids. He regularly looks through closets, dresser drawers, journals, and also keeps a detailed list of his son's email addresses and passwords to social networking sites.

How can I compete with that? And do I want to?

"Our family has an open-door rule," I told him. "That means our kids can't be in their bedrooms with the door closed."

"What else?" he asked, completely unimpressed.

"I'm in and out of dressers and closets all the time, putting clothes away."

"And?" The bastard actually yawned.

"The computer is downstairs for everyone to see, so I just look over their shoulders periodically. They aren't allowed on Facebook, and I haven't had any reason to look into their email accounts."

My friend chuckled and said, "They're starting sixth grade, so I give you until November before you begin stealth parenting."

Fantastic. As if I don't have enough pressure, now I've got to think about the joys of running a police-state household.

When is it okay to spy on your children? Should we wait until the first arrest before showing an interest in Junior's social life, or should we get involved beforehand?

When I was a kid, my mother had a lot to do, raising three kids on a buck fifty after my dad moved to Georgia to try crack and never returned. She didn't have time to snoop and told me often that I had a head on my shoulders and she expected me to use it. I had no curfew and never needed one. Somehow I made it out of high school without accumulating any diseases or felonies.

However, if she wanted to, all Mom had to do was pick up the extension and listen in on phone calls or maybe check my diary. She'd learn which friends had warts and which boys were ignoring me that week, but that's about it.

Nowadays, spying on kids is a high-tech affair and often the kids themselves are savvier with electronics than parents. I can't tell you how my smartphone works, so there's no way I can disable the delete button to read texts and call logs.

My kids don't even have cell phones yet, but that doesn't mean I don't have anxiety attacks over the day when exposure to radiation will somehow be the least of my concerns.

What about allowing children to think for themselves and make their own mistakes? Is that as outdated as VHS tapes and cinnamon toothpicks? I remember being their age and about to try french kissing and Marlboro Lights for the first time. It seems quaint now. Times have changed since 1981, and my kids are well aware of the dangers regarding cigarettes and herpes. However, we are all still learning how to maneuver through the world of chat rooms and phishing scams.

A few weeks ago, 17-year-old Jared Cano of Tampa was arrested for planning to blow up Freedom High School. The police reported that he had bomb-making materials in his bedroom and detailed manifestos that promised to outdo the Columbine killers. Cano's mom claims she had no idea he kept such things in his room, right under her nose.

She's not alone. There are many parents who never go into their kids' bedrooms, never check their Facebook pages, never question their whereabouts or get to know their friends. Surely there's a happy medium somewhere between total ignorance and a dictatorship.

I aim to find it.

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