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Advice for Parents on Privacy and Kids

Do kids have a right to privacy? If so, how much? Experts offer their insights – and they may surprise you.

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Enter at Your Own Risk! No Grown-Ups Allowed!

We've all seen these types of signs – and perhaps made them ourselves when we were young – but what happens when we confront one posted outside our own child's bedroom door?

For many parents, it's a struggle to accept a child's increasing desire for privacy. A closed door, locked diary or deleted text thread represent a growing child's desire to separate from her parents and carve out a place for herself. These symbols might be accompanied by outright requests to stop cleaning her room, keep out of her dresser drawers or stay away from her Facebook page.

When to respect privacy

Should parents respect their child's privacy and, if so, when? According to experts the answer is yes – and pretty much always.

It's a constant balancing act that gets more difficult as children move into the tween and teen years, according to psychologist David Manchel of Counseling Associates in West Bloomfield.

Yet no matter how much your child's boundaries change, what remains constant is the need to balance permissiveness and structure, setting the stage for your child to develop in a healthy, self-confident and autonomous way.

"A child should look upon the world as a safe place where she is free to roam, explore and try new behaviors, versus a child who is much less confident, has more anxiety and is more inclined to retreat into a more private, avoidant world," Manchel says.

Privacy defined

Privacy encompasses how much control a person has over information about himself, as well as property he considers his alone, such as a bedroom or journal or cell phone communications. Establishing these personal spaces requires setting up boundaries that other people may not cross without permission, according to Sandra Petronio of Indiana University-Purdue University, who first proposed her communication privacy management theory while working on her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan.

Within a household, there are collective privacy rules the entire family lives by, such as whether to discuss dad's salary with outsiders or share photos of junior online. In addition, each member of the family has his own privacy rules, Petronio says.

As children develop, so does their understanding of privacy and their desire for a place to call their own. Parents must respect the evolving privacy rules of their children despite their curiosity or concerns, Petronio says, or they risk losing their child's trust for good.

"Parents must acknowledge their children's rights to have these rules whether they like them or not," she says. "If they simply invade their privacy, children will be very creative about ways to keep information from their parents."

The evolution of privacy and kids

Small children must rely on their parents for everything from bathing and dressing to the most intimate bodily care, and start out with little concept of privacy.

"They do know about a 'secret' – you either tell it or you don't – which grows into a more cognitively complex concept as they grow up," Petronio says.

Some of the first signs of modesty can emerge as early as age 3 and may include hiding from one parent as another changes them or becoming self-conscious when they need help in the bathroom. As children reach adolescence, Petronio says, their understanding of privacy becomes more nuanced as they start to differentiate between their parent's world and their own.

"They begin testing out privacy rules that belong to them, not their parents. That's why they put out signs that say 'Do Not Enter,' and 'Don't Touch,'" Petronio says. "They begin to decide what's private and what their parents have a right to know about."

Starting around age 10, children may begin to spend more time in their room or create clubhouses where they can literally and metaphorically escape from the world. Tweens jealously guard their personal space and may declare their bedroom off-limits to siblings as well as parents – even if it means living amidst a mess.

Friends become increasingly important, and they may want to share some information with their peers instead of mom or dad. They may begin to write their innermost thoughts in a journal and set aside a space, like a dresser drawer, to store private things. Petronio says this should be encouraged.

"They need some place of their own, otherwise they never will learn how to manage those things. You have to trust them enough to give them ownership over space and information to be able to have them learn when things work and when things don't work," Petronio says.

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