“Where did you get that?” my eighth-grader demands to know. She looks accusingly at her little sister, who holds in her hand a tiny, green padlock shaped like a frog.
“I found it,” comes the reply. “In the garage,” she adds, a detail intended to lend credibility to her story.
“That's the lock to my diary. Give it back,” my older daughter commands.
“You don't even keep a diary,” I reason with my eighth-grader, “and she's had the lock for two weeks, so obviously it's not something you really need.” She relents and lets her little sister keep the frog.
“The key is lost anyway,” she concedes, “and besides, I hate diaries. Whenever I go back and read what I wrote, it's too embarrassing.”
She has a point, and the reason I know this is I read her diary whenever she bothers to keep one, which is sporadic at best.
But before I'm accused of being the worst kind of parental snoop, let me just say that when a diary is pink and covered with pictures of purple unicorns, it's not likely to contain much by way of deeply personal expressions of teenaged angst.
More likely, it says things like, “I want to be Mrs. Orlando Bloom” and “I got my first zit today.” I don't read diaries to get information; I read them for the entertainment value.
Around our house, diaries cause trouble. That's because I'm not the only one reading a journal that doesn't belong to me.
Years ago, my eldest daughter wrote in a diary about her frustration at having to share a room with her younger sister. Only she didn't just object to sharing living quarters, she objected to sharing airspace and occupancy on planet Earth. In short, she wrote a lot of mean and nasty stuff about her sibling, which caused some heartache when read by the subject of this private tirade.
This presented a tough parenting dilemma.
On the one hand, my younger daughter had no business reading a diary that didn't belong to her. Then again, the older one wrote some pretty spiteful things about her sister. It's not that she wasn't entitled to her feelings, but some thoughts probably are best left unexpressed.
So I did what any mother would do in a situation like this: I made them both feel guilty. One of them was busted for snooping, the other for sniping. I ripped the offending pages out of the book and said something about starving children in Third World countries (a Catholic mother's go-to line of defense, regardless of the issue at hand).
After that, diaries lost their appeal.
Monitoring the contents of a diary is a lot more complicated these days. The new “dear diary” is an online journal, possibly reflecting the trend in our culture toward emotional exhibitionism.
If you can't tell your innermost thoughts to a studio audience on the Jerry Springer Show, at least you can blog them for thousands of unknown readers on the World Wide Web.
A recent news story about teen blogs posed the question, “Is it appropriate for parents to read their teenager's online journal?” The article said this was a “gray area” because “reading a teen's online blog might intrude on his privacy,” jeopardizing the parent/child relationship.
I had to reread that part of the article a couple of times because it used the words “online blog” and “privacy” in the same sentence, which I found confusing.
An expert, Professor Paul Attewell from the City University of New York, actually said and I'm not making this up reading your child's blog is “tacky and reprehensible.” The article substantiated his credentials by stating he was funded by the National Science Foundation to research teens and technology.
Thank goodness, Mr. Attewell was not funded to research parenting.
Now, I don't want to overstate this, so I'll just say, comments like this professor's are what's wrong with America today.
First, “tacky and reprehensible” is when you walk into the high school cafeteria wearing sweats and smelling like toilet bowl cleaner to drop off the lunch your teen forgot, and you make a big fuss over it in front of her friends.
It's also “tacky and reprehensible” to sing with the radio when her friends are in the car, talk about guys you dated in high school, or suggest a hairstyle for her.
What isn't tacky or reprehensible is being a responsible parent. This means making it your business to know if your child is blogging and deciding whether this is acceptable to you.
If you allow blogging, it means setting standards so your child knows what is appropriate to post in cyberspace. And most of all, it means eliminating any expectation of privacy if your teen chooses to share personal thoughts and feelings with the cyber world.
So-called experts like Mr. Attewell aren't doing teens any favors, either. In our culture, too many parents behave like buddies to their children and not authority figures. His advice gives adults a permission slip to skip out on the hard work it takes to be aware of and involved in their teenagers' lives.
The National Science Foundation isn't funding me for anything, so I guess I'm not an expert. Nonetheless, when it comes to parenting, I'm willing to be “tacky and reprehensible” if that's what it takes to do the job.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)