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  Q&A with Jacqueline Salmon

Jacqueline Salmon
Jacqueline Salmon
As The Post's Jacqueline Salmon reported Feb. 28, some parents are spying on their children. Advances in technology are making it easier to tape phone conversations, test children for drug use and film their movements. But parents also risk getting caught and alienating their teenagers.

How did family life take such a dark turn? Do parents have a right to spy on troubled teenagers, or are they invading their children's privacy? Salmon joined us online at 3 p.m. EST Friday, March 5, to discuss the trend. A Post reporter since 1987, Salmon specializes in family issues and has co-authored books on parenting.

Springfield, Va.: Why do parents feel the need to spy on their children? It seems that you can learn a lot from your kids just by having daily contact with them. Their actions, words, moods – all the little subtleties – can be revealing.

Jacqueline Salmon: Actually, I asked myself the same question while writing this story. In fact, a lot of substance abuse experts and others who worked with troubled kids say that you can tell a lot about a kid's "extracurricular activities" by his/her behavior. There are even checklists available: Is the child becoming moody? Have his friends changed? Things like that. But parents I've interviewed who've spied on their kids say that they saw all those changes but still weren't able to figure out just what their kids are up to. They say they needed more detailed info in order to figure out how to get their kids' help. This issue is really controversial AND emotional, because parents are desperate to get their kids help. Are they going too far? That's a tough question.

Edmonston, Md.: I don't think a parent should spy on their kids. I believe they do have some degree of privacy, but an open dialogue with your kids on everything from sex to drugs to alcohol will eliminate the anticipated need to spy. I have 3 teenagers but have been talking to them about all of the above since they were 7.

Do you think spying is a result of parents who don't have that open dialogue with their kids?

Jacqueline Salmon: Well, parents who've spied on their kids told me that their children had flat out lied to them so much that they no longer believed them. But a lot of people agree with you: They say parents need that open dialogue and by spying on their kids without their kids' knowledge, moms and dads are destroying any chance for an open dialogue because, inevitably, the kids find out what their parents are up to.

Mitchellville, Md.: Have the parents given their children so much freedom that now the only way that they can exercise any control is to resort to tactics that erodes their family values?

Jacqueline Salmon: That's a good question and it goes to the very heart of Baby Boomer parenting. Are we giving our kids too much rope? And, once our kids have so much freedom and they abuse it, are we overreacting by resorting to undercover tactics to keep an eye on them? The parents I interviewed say, no, they aren't overreacting. They say they're just reacting to a child who is out of control. Now, whose fault is it that the child is out of control? It probably varies by family. In some cases, good, loving parents are having to deal with a kid who is lying, stealing, etc. Does that mean the parents are at fault? That's a tough call.

Fairfax, Va.: What are some of the more recent laws implemented regarding parental punishment for the illegal actions of their minor-aged children?

Jacqueline Salmon: I know just a little bit about those laws. They were hot about three years ago (in Michigan and a few other states, I believe). These state legislatures decided that poor parenting was to blame for troublemaker kids and, well, then let's just punish the parents for their children's actions. Somebody out there might correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think much has happened since then. I certainly haven't heard of any big cases where parents have had to ante up fines or go to jail because of their children's actions. But, again, if somebody out there knows differently, let me know.

Burtonsville, Md.: The advanced technology is also helping our children to do more and conceal it better than before. How are we to keep up with everything that can go on without spying?

Jacqueline Salmon: Darned if I know! After my story ran, I got a call from a mom who says she suspects that her 17-year-old son is tapping HER telephone calls so he can find out how much she knows about his activities. So she wanted info on how she can spy on HIM. That's scary!! So, you're right, these kids are smart and they can use the technology often better than we can! As one school drug counsellor told me "These kids aren't dumb. If they were dumb, they'd have gotten caught a long time ago."

Washington, D.C.: Do you agree that it's best to know what's going on in your child's life be it good or bad? Sometimes it may hurt you to find out certain things, but you can't let them know that you know all things because they may loose their trust in their privacy.

Jacqueline Salmon: I absolutely agree. It's our job as parents to know what's going on in our child's life, even if (or especially if!) our child won't tell us. But people who oppose spying say that parents can use other methods, like when your child says he's going to spend the night at, say, Ryan's house, well, then you should call Ryan's parents and check out the story. Nobody I talked to thought there was anything wrong with these kinds of measures to keep an eye on your child. Some parents I know whose children are all friends have formed a "phone network" where they stay in constant contact to make sure their kids are all where they say they are and so on.

Fairfax County, Va.: My 15-year-old son has recently downloaded explicit pornography on the computer, despite blocking software. My 12-year-old daughter found it. (I also have 2 younger daughters.) This weekend I am taking the PC to the shop to have all files deleted. I trusted him, he has violated that trust. As a result, the situation has changed. He will no longer have access to the PC without being monitored. At that age, children should be allowed one mistake before parents take action, particularly if younger siblings are hurt (this has scared my daughter). I view pornography to be as much a problem as drug or alcohol use. Reactions?

Jacqueline Salmon: So much for the blocking software! I know a lot of parents have expressed concern about their children's easy access to the dark side of the Internet. I'm no expert, but I'll bet counselors, therapists, etc., would say you handled the situation wisely. In fact, a lot of people who deal with kids recommend against letting a child have a personal computer with Internet access in their room because of the danger of what a child could find out there (and who he/she might meet on line).

Fairfax, Va.: When I was a teenager, about 10 years ago, I know that my father snooped through my things when I wasn't around. I'm not sure what he was looking for. I was a "good" kid – home by curfew, hung out with the "right" people, no drugs or alcohol. I still have a lot of resentment from this "spying." I would much rather if he had just come out and asked me the things that he was trying to find out.

Jacqueline Salmon: That's a real sticky issue. I know parents who routinely search their children's rooms and read their diaries. Are they just being smart or are they violating their child's privacy? One school drug counselor I interviewed said that parents SHOULD routinely search their child's room but casually...checking through drawers if they're putting away clean clothes..maybe taking a quick look in drawers of a kid's bedroom desk. But then I talked to the head of a drug-treatment center who thought that practice was awful.

Arlington, Va.: Even if spying is justified, how do families move on once all the secrets are out in the open (the child's behavior problems as well as the parents' spying)? How do parents and children go about rebuilding trust?

Jacqueline Salmon: Good point!! What does a parent do once he/she has evidence their a child is involved in illicit activity? Everyone I interviewed for this story (parents and "experts") said that parents MUST seek professional help if they know, or even just suspect, problems. There are a lot of counseling services out there. Often, schools have programs as well.

Washington, D.C.: I think the problem here is the word "spying," which is a loaded word with negative connotations. Rather, is it okay to "monitor" your children's behavior, to "supervise" their activities, to "investigate" their circumstances? Here's what a drug counselor told me many years ago: "Would you search your child's room if you thought he or she had a loaded gun hidden there?"

I doubt many parents, given this situation, would anguish over the question of home-based civil rights. The object is to save your kids from frying their brains or killing themselves with drugs or whatever lethality they have at hand, right? So as a parent you do what you need to do and the hell with everything else.

Jacqueline Salmon: Yes, the word "spying" can be seen as a loaded word. I guess much of what I heard from experts and parents was that you need to be really, really careful these days. Kids are starting drug and alcohol use much earlier than in the past. The mean age for first use of marijuana has dropped from 19 years to 16 years just since the early 1990s. That means that kids aren't trying marijuana as a freshman or sophomore in college, but as sophomores in high school. And studies have shown that the younger kids are when they use drugs/alcohol, the more likely they are to end up with a lifelong substance abuse problem. In other words, the longer a kid can delay that first exposure to illicit substances and alcohol, the better he's off. Of course, the wish is that a kid NEVER gets involved in such substances.

Washington, D.C.: I know when I was a kid there was a "Mother's Mafia." No one got away with anything. I suppose it is sexist to say "Mother Mafia" – certainly fathers could be involved, but doesn't having two parents working and/or there being so many one-parent households make a need for high-tech spying that much greater?

Jacqueline Salmon: You're right. It is tougher for the "Mother's Mafias" to function because there are more working/single parents. In fact, juvenile crime, drug use and pregnancies occur the most between 3 and 6 p.m. – when they're out of school but their parents are at work. That said, I don't want to heap more guilt onto working parents. It just means that it's a different world out there now than when we grew up. And we need to accept that. Drugs are a lot more potent than when we Baby Boomers were in our teens. Kids are starting younger and younger. And parents need to be more vigilant, perhaps, than our parents needed to be.

Laurel, Md.: Since when did parenting and having your child's best interests at heart turn into spying and invasion of privacy? This attitude has turned us from family to more of a business type atmosphere in the home. If the present trends continue I shudder to think what the outcome will bring us.

Jacqueline Salmon: A lot of family therapists and other people who work with troubled kid complain that today's parents are too wishy-washy. They say that some of the current generation of parents are too eager to be their children's friends. Whether you agree with that opinion or not, it is important that parents stay involved in their kids' lives. A lot of parents are really involved with their kids when the children are in elementary school (they coach soccer teams, volunteer at school, serve on the PTA). But when these kids go to middle school and high school, parents' involvement in their activities drop way off. It drives PTA officials and coaches, etc. crazy.

Arlington, Va.: Spying on a child is not an open act, it's sneaky and as an example teaches children to be just as sneaky. Can something that discourages an open relationship have any positive consequences? Even if a parent does have more information on what there child is up to, are they in a weaker position to influence their child because of the barrier put up by having gained the information deceitfully?

Jacqueline Salmon: That's exactly what drug counsellors and other who oppose spying on kids say. They believe that spying on kids IS sneaky and, in the end, won't result in anything positive.

Washington, D.C.: I'm horrified at all this parental spying. It seems pretty obvious that the way for parents to learn about their children's lives is not to listen in – just to listen! Do you think the parents you interviewed were good listeners – or just good spies?

Jacqueline Salmon: You know what surprised me about this story? Every parent I interviewed (whether or not I quoted them), seemed like a decent, good, loving mom or dad. I think I was expecting more, well, dysfunctional families to be involved in such surreptitious activity. That's not what I found. But it points up the scary part about teenage drug use: You can't inoculate your kids so they don't "catch it." Kids from "good" homes end up in trouble as well as kids from "bad" homes. Obviously, you can reduce the risks for your kid. For example, a number of studies have shown that kids who have family dinner several times a week are less apt to become involved in illicit activity.

Arlington, Va.: Your story was great. What a chilling look at the underbelly of modern culture. Brr. Any good news coming out of suburbia?

Jacqueline Salmon: Thanks for the compliment (I think). My job is to write about suburban family life – all aspects of it. Sometimes that means writing about issues that aren't real positive. Speaking as a suburbanite as well as a journalist, I can say that there are a lot of good things in suburbia these days. When I look around me, I see lots of hard-working, loving parents doing the best job they can to bring up good kids. We may not agree all the time with the ways they're doing it, but we can't begrudge them the fact that they're trying. The suburbs are quite different from the Levittowns where many of us grew up. They're more diverse as well as less judgmental about people who are 'different' from them. The suburbs aren't perfect. But some of the criticism, I believe, is undeserved.

Somewhere, U.S.A.: Even though you stay involved with your children when they are middle school and high school, children still violate your trust. Kids place more importance on themselves and their friends than on their parents. It really hurts me as a parent when you have devoted so much time to a child and that child still does things to violate the rules and values that have been established. It is extremely difficult to try to keep trusting when the child is constantly trying to keep you out of their life.

Jacqueline Salmon: You eloquently state the beliefs of many of the parents I quoted. It's horrible, awful, life-destroying when you find out your child has deceived you. Finding out about the dark side of your child's life – the sex, the drugs, the crime – is about as bad as it gets as a parent. The parents I interviewed told me they didn't spy on their kids on a whim – because they wanted to find out more about Ryan's new girlfriend, for example – but because they were desperate. A lot of experts who work with troubled kids, however, say that there are better ways to get the information these parents said they needed. I guess the rest of us get to decide who's right. And hope we never face the same choices as these parents have.

Bowie, Md.: I recently apologized to my 15-year old daughter for looking into her "secret box." I've promised not to look in it again, and I never will. However, I have placed limits on her life, i.e., she can have friends over, but she's not allowed to date yet; expecting her to be respectful even if she doesn't agree with her parents; limiting telephone time, no phone in the bedroom. I think that giving kids too much stuff (phones, cars, tv's, etc.) and allowing them to make so called "adult" decisions about their lives contributes to much of what we're seeing now. What do you think?

Jacqueline Salmon: Well, I'm no expert in the game of parenting. I do know that a number of studies have found that kids whose parents set firm limits tend to do better than kids of parents who are more permissive. I recently had to tell my almost 10-year-old that she was not allowed to see "Titanic" at a slumber party that she was going to attend that evening. I had to call the mother of the girl holding the slumber party and tell her that my daughter would not attend the slumber party until the movie was over (well, I said it more politely than that). It was awful. I hated to do it. But my daughter seemed relieved that I'd taken a stand. I know, however, that these issues get muddier as kids get older. You don't want to deprive a kid of so much that she rebels. But, as they always say, each kid is different. And that doesn't help any of us very much! By the way, the mom decided not to show 'Titanic' at the slumber party.

Riverdale, Md.: One of the mothers in your article couldn't bring herself to listen to the tapes she was making of her son's phone conversation, so she asked her other son to listen and then report to her. His antic mimicry of the conversations he listened to was so amusing she laughed rather than cried when she learned her son had a drug problem. My question is, what kind of a mother is she? Eavesdropping on her son, sharing the information with another son, not able to engage the father (who could not bear to listen to the tapes), and then unable to confront the son with his problem. So why did she do it? To get her story in the Post? Sounds like there's a lot more going on in that household than a drug problem. It seems to me that these disrespectful methods of information-gathering are a lot more destructive to family relations than the drug problems they potentially reveal.

Jacqueline Salmon: Actually, I saw her as someone who was using humor to cope with an awful situation. In fact, parents coping with troubled kids, substance abuse counselors, etc. say that parents have to keep their sense of humor as a way of staying sane while they deal with their child and his problems. In fact, parents at some support groups I went to were urged each week to tell the group something good that they'd done just for themselves. Parent shouldn't destroy themselves or their marriage while trying to save their child. Also, I'm told that it's fairly common for the mother of a troubled boy to take the lead in helping him. Often, the father takes the lead role when a daughter is involved. Obviously, that's a gross generalization. But my point is that each family finds its own way to cope with a crisis. And if the family emerges successfully from that crisis, then who are we to judge them? Well, it's time to wrap things up. Thanks for all of your thought-provoking questions, and thanks to Jacqueline Salmon for joining us this afternoon.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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