Sunday, November 25, 2007


I'm a parent. Each of my grown children is a teacher, and each has two young children. When I observe them with their children or their students, I am struck by their ability to convey the importance of embracing strong values.

My son, for example, teaches high-school literature. His school prides itself on several core values that it believes each student should embrace. This fall, believing that some of these values might be too abstract, my son decided to incorporate them into his lesson plan and teach a separate piece of writing for each of the core values -- a technique I wished I'd come up with myself.

My kids are among the people I turn to when I find myself perplexed by particularly thorny ethical

Yet they were once teenagers.

Those years brought me the fears that all parents have about the health, safety and mindset of their children. While my wife and I were committed to helping them find their own way in the world, our chief concern was always their well-being.

A reader from Washington feels the same way, but worries that his 13-year-old daughter -- a near-perfect student who also turns out for crew -- is growing more and more distant.

"Throughout her childhood we have always talked freely and openly," he writes. "She now constantly complains of boredom in school and life. [The daughter] spends hours a day in online chat sessions with her friends."

Her father is worried that something is wrong, but he can't identify what.

While I survived my children's teenage years and know that it is normal for children to seek to exert control of their own lives, I am not an expert in childhood development.

My reader doesn't want psychological advice, however. He wants to know about the ethics covering the balance between a child's right to privacy and a parent's need to know and protect her. Specifically, he wants to know if it would be ethical to install an invisible keystroke-recording program on the computer so that he can monitor his daughter's online conversations.

It's perfectly ethical for a parent to restrict a child's computer use. Blocking access to certain Web sites, for example, is a parental prerogative.

If my reader wants to maintain the trust he's established with his daughter, however, the right thing for him to do is to let her know that he is concerned about what he sees as her excessive use of online chat rooms. If he's considering monitoring her messages, he should make clear that he will do so if and when he feels it's appropriate.

No self-respecting teenager will greet such news with shouts of joy, granted. But if this father values trust between him and his daughter, he has no choice but to be open and honest about the possibility of monitoring, even if it stirs up a hornet's nest he'd rather not deal with. If he sticks to his guns, in the end at least his daughter will appreciate that he was frank with her. And if the disclosure makes her consider her online chats more judiciously, that's not a bad outcome.

Regardless of what he decides to do, however, if at any point the father truly feels that his daughter may be in danger, he will not be wrong to read her online missives. Her safety always trumps her right to privacy.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

AS a parent, I feel I have the right to monitor and check behind my child. When did children receive all of this privacy? If you are living in your parent's home and you are under 21, then all bets are off in terms of privacy. When a child needs that much privacy, then it is time for them to move on to their own space. All parents need to get a grip on this thing and step up to the plate. And turn off all of the stupid reality junk on TV! That stuff teaches our kids how to be JERKS!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I look forward to future inventions to improve software technology. With todays society being as corrupted as it is, theres no going to say that your child, growing up in a public school, will not be exposed to something of an illegal substance or negative nature. I mean we all just want our kids to grow up strong physically and mentally. We cannot afford to see them deteriorate, but we can afford McAfee! :)