Should parents spy on their children to protect them?

Surveillance seems to be the 21st-century way of life. The government must know every action, conversation, association, and thought to keep citizens safe from the latest bogyman. Schools have been caught monitoring students through laptop computers, that take pictures of them at home, without their knowledge or consent, and document every web site they visit and keystroke they make. Parents track their children’s lives with cell phones, GPS device, computer surveillance, and good old fashioned spying.

So everyone should be much safer and more secure than ever, right? Well, maybe not so much. Maybe too much spying and prying into private lives actually makes one feel violated, not protected.

Childhood, and adolescence in particular, should be a time of experimenting and exploring options in life. It’s a time to sow wild oats, break the rules, push the envelop, test the boundaries our parents set, and make mistakes. When the apron strings are tied too tight, it can be hard for kids to mature into responsible adults, on one hand. On the other, many teenagers may simply learn to rebel against all authority figures to free themselves from those suffocating ties.

Humans are social beings, but even the most social beings need some psychological separation from the “hive” to develop as an autonomous individual. Everyone needs to have some private thoughts, private “guilty pleasures,” private experiences that parents and teachers and even close siblings don’t share. The cliche that you don’t need to worry about “surveillance” – from the government, school, or parents – if you’re not doing anything wrong, simply isn’t true.

Young people today have grown up in a world where every passing thought can be posted on Facebook or tweeted to the world. But even the most avid user of social media still needs an inner, secret life – even if it’s only an anonymous online persona – that their parents or employers or even their closest friends aren’t privy to.

Maybe part of the problem lies with the increasingly complicated and seemingly dangerous world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Everywhere you turn – TV, movies, advertising, news, politicians and religious leaders – you’re being told to be afraid, very afraid of terrorism, predators, crime and the evil temptations just waiting to corrupt and destroy the trusting, vulnerable innocents.

Nervous, frightened parents can hardly be blamed for sometimes wanting to control every aspect of their children’s lives. But life is not so easily controlled, not even your own much less the lives of others. Too much protection and monitoring is unhealthy for both parent and child.

Parents are responsible for the health, education, and wellbeing of their kids. At some point, though, they have to let go and trust that they’ve provided what their offspring need to develop their own moral compass, and make their own choices in life. Of course, they may not make the choices their parents would make. They may travel down several dead-end streets before they find the right path. But life is a journey, and children need to begin to find their own way. They can’t do that if their parents are at their side at every step, setting up roadblocks and navigating their course.