It’s “Dear Diary”, not “Dear Mom”!

Clients and other professionals ask me from time to time about children’s diaries and journals. Should parents consider privacy inviolable and the contents of a diary sacrosanct? Or rather, are parents entitled to discover their child’s secret thoughts?

The question, which I discuss more fully in Desperately Seeking Parents, does not allow as black and white an answer as other parenting challenges. But there are some guiding principles that I believe parents would be wise to consider.

Parents need to comprehend how keenly a child treasures her privacy. In fact, privacy could be subsumed under any of the Four Rewards that children seek: Trust, Respect, Freedom, and Privileges. Because so much of a child’s life is subject to adult scrutiny—from teachers, parents, coaches, friends’ parents—a child’s diary resembles an oasis of thought and feeling. It represents the one place the child can express thoughts and feelings undiluted by fear of adult interference or judgment.

Of course, these are the very thoughts and feelings some parents are so eager to plunder. What parent doesn’t want to know the inner workings of his child’s mind and heart? The problem is that your child expects that her diary will be private. This changes what she enters. Some of the thoughts expressed in diaries and journals are not accurate. Many children and adolescents “try on” thoughts and ideas in their private writings as if to examine them or achieve some sort of catharsis. For example: “I hate Ginny. The next time I see her, I’m going to shove her head down the toilet.” Maybe these are true feelings; more likely, they are hyperbolic reflections of a fleeting, half-baked feeling. Parents can get the wrong idea about their child.

Privacy is one of those things that parents should consider as both a right and a privilege. On the one hand, certainly privacies (such as going to the bathroom unattended) should be afforded your child except in the most extreme cases. On the other hand, higher levels of privacy must be earned. You wouldn’t let your early adolescent alone in her room with the door closed with a boy she has a crush on, would you? But after years of trustworthy behavior, sound judgment, and solid evidence of assertiveness, you might easily allow your daughter that privacy.

I advise parents to discuss the limitations of a diary when the child first receives it. The boundaries should be clearly stated to the child: as long as Mom and Dad can reasonably trust your safety, there will be no reason to intrude on the privacy of your diary or journal. However, if Mom and Dad perceive a threat to your safety, then they reserve the right to look at your diary in order to learn anything they can to help make you safe. Discuss what those specific safety “triggers” might be. Let them know that you have specific concerns on your radar screen. If you are a paranoid parent, admit it. Laugh at yourself before your child does!

Parents possess the right to some reconnaissance, but breaking this sacred boundary should be reserved for only the most critical moments and challenges, such as suicidality, significant drug and alcohol use, or involvement in dangerous relationships. Be assured, you will pay a penalty for breaking this boundary; the damage to your perceived trustworthiness will be considerable. If the penalty proves too steep for you, it would be wise to maintain your child’s privacy.

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