Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Omniscent parenting

Something was bugging me about Harlan Coben's article about bugging your children's computers. I was reminded of what this was when reading Eric Asimov's piece about parents discussing the pros and cons of allowing their 17-year-olds a sip (not a whole glass!) of wine with dinner. Anyone who's been 17 knows that if you're not drinking at 17, you will be at 18, assuming you're college-bound, and probably also if you're not. Parental discussion of what children should or should not do at 17 is theoretical, or rather is a discussion of what they should or should not sanction, but unless they plan on a homeschooling program for their kids' undergrad degrees, they know, presumably, what's going to happen, and probably already happening, sips at home or no sips. The ceremonial decision of whether a 19-year-old college student home on break is permitted a taste of wine is a silly moment for the 19-year-old and, I would assume, the parents.

What's going on in both of these articles is a refusal to acknowledge that which all children, and all who were once children, understand. There is a huge, huge range of activity that falls between that which is immoral or criminal and that of which parents--someone's specific parents, not parents generally--would approve. The range of behaviors include everything a parent would be upset to learn his 17-, 22-, or 40-year-old son was doing, but that, if done by a same-age friend of the parent, would seem inconsequential. A combination of family-specific morality and the simple ickiness that is thinking about one's child having free will lead parents and children alike to accept, if implicitly, that a lot goes on that parents do not, and should not, know about.

Coben, who advocates parents using spyware on their near-adult children's computers, nevertheless advises, "There is a fine line between being responsibly protective and irresponsibly nosy. You shouldn’t monitor to find out if your daughter’s friend has a crush on Kevin next door or that Mrs. Peterson gives too much homework or what schoolmate snubbed your son."

Sounds simple, but what if your daughter and her friend are observant Jews and Kevin is a Mormon? What if you, the parent, think your child is not serious enough about school, and had better do everything Mrs. Peterson wants, and then some? What if the schoolmate snubbed your son because your son is, or appears, gay, and you'd rather he, not Kevin the Mormon, were running off with Rivka the Rebel? When you're a child--and by 'child' I mean the child or adult offspring of individuals still living--there is no such thing as an inconsequential action. The late-teen drinking example is a poor one, since this is technically illegal (but universally done). It is, however, quite legal for 18-year-olds to have sex, to say mean things about people their parents like, to have friends they don't want their parents meeting, and so on, and so on. The possibilities truly are endless. By definition this space is one parents cannot acknowledge. But without acknowledging it outright, parents should be able to show, between the lines, that they know. If not to their own children, then perhaps to the mostly-adult NYT readership.

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