Last night, while watching an old episode of "Reba" (I LOVE that show - besides the fact that Reba has always reminded me of my gorgeous red-headed friend, Anne, Reba's all about no-nonsense parenting with humor and grace), I saw a hilarious exchange between Reba and her oldest daughter, Cheyenne. Reba explained how she always knew when Cheyenne liked a boy: she'd doodle his name on her notebook and wear a certain pink sweater and a certain mint-flavored lip gloss. Cheyenne, horrified that her mother knew so much, asked, "How did you know about the lipgloss? Were you spying on me?" Reba answered, "I found it in your pocket." Cheyenne exclaimed, "How could you? Going through someone's pockets is called spying!" - to which Reba responded, "No, it's called doing laundry."
Now, I don't know about you, but I could fill a huge trash can with the assorted items I've found in my family's pockets over the years. Aside from enough money to take all my girlfriends to Starbucks, I've found rocks, lip balm, notes, receipts, pens, toys, sand, tissues, Barbie shoes, ponytail holders, bobby pins, erasers... the list goes on. Never once have I considered checking their pockets to be an invasion of privacy; it's more a "I can't afford a new washing machine every week" thing. My rule is, if you leave it in your pocket, you must not want it - so finders keepers!
But I digress.
In this particular Reba episode, the real issue at hand is spying on teens to find out what's going on in their lives. Reba's pretty sure that her middle child, Kyra, is keeping something from her. Her ex-husband's new wife tells her that she reads Kyra's email and snoops through her stuff. She sees nothing wrong with it, nor does Kyra's father, but Reba is horrified at the thought.
So, as usual, this got me thinking: is it OK to spy on your kids? Is there ever a situation where parents can justify snooping? For me, the short answer is hell, yes, just don't get caught. The longer answer is, well, maybe, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, when other methods have failed and you're pretty sure that your child is in danger or in trouble, and you're not merely being nosy and annoying and controlling - sort of like we all thought OUR moms were when we were teenagers. If I trust my kids, and I trust that they're being honest and open with me, then I have no reason to go looking for information. But if I start seeing secretive, scary behavioral changes, then I feel a responsibility to investigate so I can help my kids.
Now, I'm not justifying random nosiness. My oldest daughter keeps a journal, and I can't imagine reading it. (Really, it'd be pretty dull anyway. It's likely to say stuff like, "My sister is really annoying me. I wish I were an only child." Or, "_____ is soooo cute. OMG I luv that new Taylor Swift song. Team Jacob! I wish my mom would let me see 'Twilight' but she says it's 'inappropriate.' Whatever.") Like I'd want to read that. But she's only a fourth-grader. As she gets older, will I feel differently?
My Reba look-alike friend, Anne, has a teenaged daughter. Years ago, when Lauren was 10 or 11, Anne gave me some fantastic advice: be the mom who hosts every sleepover and get-together. All the girls hang out at her house, and she moves in and out of the room, bringing more popcorn, wiping up spills, refilling drinks, setting down a pizza, sitting in a corner reading a book. Meanwhile, the girls? They don't really notice her. They go on with their conversations, spilling everything to each other, and she's all but invisible to them. Yep, she's a sneaky one - but smart, that Anne. She's hearing it all; she's privy to all their secrets, and they don't even realize it. (She also told me to never force kids to cut out an undesirable friendship, because that just sends it "underground" and you stop knowing what's going on. Instead, make sure that the kid is welcomed into your home so you can watch exactly what's going on. Hmmm. She's good.)
A few years ago, I found a notebook under the couch, with "Top Secret" written on it in my daughter's handwriting. Yes, I opened it and read it (I thought about it for a moment, but again, if you're leaving your "top secret" stuff under the couch in the family room, really, how private can it be?), and I was really glad I did. It was full of some dark poetry - especially considering that she was in second grade - about lost love, depression, sadness, and longing to fit in. So I did what any mom would do; I panicked. Then I calmed down and called my best friend, read it to her, and asked her advice. She suggested that I tell my daughter I'd found it and then ask her if she wanted to talk about it. My husband and I were both worried about the content; my daughter seemed like a happy, well-adjusted little girl with no worries.
Imagine my surprise when I sat my daughter down for a serious heart-to-heart. As soon as I pulled out the notebook, she exclaimed, "THERE IT IS! I've been looking for my song book!" Um, songbook? Turns out, she'd been writing lyrics, not poetry. And when I asked if she felt sad or lonely, she looked at me like I was a complete moron and said, "Why would you think THAT?" Um, the lyrics? They're pretty depressing? Big eyeroll. "Mom, seriously, don't you realize that ALL lyrics are about lost love, or not fitting in, or being depressed? I'm not sure I got it right, because I'm a little young for all that, but what else does anyone write about?"
So yes, I've learned a little lesson about panicking after snooping. And I really don't think that there's anything going on that I don't know about. But she's only 8. The teen years loom ahead, dark and mysterious, full of worries and woes. Right now, she tells me everything. And I mean, EVERYTHING. Much more than I care to know. I mean, do I really NEED to know who likes who and what the entire class ate for lunch? No, thanks, I'd rather not. But I love that she wants to talk to me; she opens up, shares her day and her feelings and her dreams. Because I have another daughter, one who usually responds to "What did you do at school today?" with "I dunno. Can't remember." She tells me relatively little, and that worries me for HER teen years. Oh, she's an open book right now, sure, but she doesn't have an incessant monologue going on, and I'm not sure she'll ever develop one, what with her chatty older sister and her conversation-hog mother around. She's the one I need to watch.
Right now, my kids are too young for Facebook, email, texting their friends. But middle school is nearly here, and with it will come increased distance, increased access to technology, and a cell phone. There will be different pressures, boys won't be so gross, and cyber-bullying will be an issue. They'll need more freedom online, around the neighborhood, at school, in the community. So I reserve the right to snoop and spy on my kids - if I feel I need to. I WILL read their texts, monitor their use of social networking sites, retain access to their email accounts. I will continue to monitor their moods and behaviors and friends. It's a scary world out there, and it's my job to keep them safe. If they won't open up, if I suspect there's a problem, if I think they're in trouble, I will get to the bottom of it. If it makes them mad, fine. If they hate me for it, so be it. If they give me no reason to mistrust them, I won't. But they've been told, and I'll keep telling them: just because I trust YOU does not mean I trust the rest of the world.
Slacker Mom Says... sign me up for the spy gear and the night vision goggles. I'm keeping tabs on my kids and their activities, within reason. It's probably not a popular stance, but my job isn't to be popular. My job is to raise kids who are intelligent, who make good decisions, who are equipped to leave me someday and be independent, fulfilled individuals with sound judgment and good ethics and morals. If I need to supervise them closely so that they can learn from their mistakes, I will. There's a fine line between overprotective and protective; I'm trying to find it and stay on the right side of it, but I'm still learning. I'll make mistakes, and so will they, but we're in this together.