When our children are young, we are privy to many of their innermost thoughts. In fact, it’s not unusual for a preschool-aged child to verbalize nearly every thought in real time, a sort of running dialogue of what is happening inside their brain—which can be both endearing and exhausting. At a certain point, though, little children evolve into bigger children and decide they’d rather not tell us everything. Or even much of anything.
It’s at that point, often around the tween years, that you wish they’d start rambling again. Now their silence or one-word answers leave you craving more. You may notice that while they’re not talking to you much, they are writing in their diary an awful lot; maybe you’ll take a peek—just to make sure everything is okay. As one self-described “nosy” parent wrote to Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column:
My daughter is 10, in fifth grade. She started a new school in September, where she didn’t know anybody. As is totally appropriate for her age, I’m sure, she is telling me almost nothing about her life. Many of my questions get one-word answers. But every night, she writes in her diary. And while I don’t have any specific concerns other than the general anxiety that comes with parenting a fifth grade girl in today’s world, I think that if I read her diary, I’d get a sense of what is going on and would able to be a more supportive and responsive parent.
No. Stop. Do not do this.
Any parent who snoops through their child’s diary might get a better sense of what is going on, sure. But you’d also have betrayed your child’s privacy—and their trust in you—in the process. General anxiety about raising a child in “today’s world,” while understandable, is not grounds for sneaking around and reading their private musings; general anxiety about raising a child in today’s world means you need to…parent them.
To do this, first stop asking the usual questions that are prompting the one-word answers. Parents for generations have been asking the same question every day (“How was school?”) and receiving the same answer (“Fine.”). Your question is boring and deserving of a boring answer.
Instead, ask what they did at recess. Ask if the food in the new school cafeteria is better or worse than the old school. Ask what they’re working on in art class (or whatever subject or extracurricular activity you know they enjoy). Or, as Michelle Herman suggests in the Slate column, create opportunities for you to connect with them, or for them to let their guard down with you, such as on a long car ride or doing an activity together that you both love.
If you want to read their words—but in a way that isn’t crappy—start a conversation journal with them. It may be easier for them to open up to you with words on a page versus words said out loud, but let them choose what to disclose.
If you feel tempted to crack their diary open, even for just a quick glimpse, remember that journaling offers loads of benefits for kids. It helps them not only practice and improve their writing, but it’s also an outlet for identifying, examining, and processing their feelings and experiences. Discovering that those private inner thoughts have been stolen will not only threaten to damage your relationship with your child—it may also make them hesitant to put their thoughts and feelings on paper again, depriving them of an incredible tool for developing emotional reflection and regulation.
Also, as philosophy professor and author Kwame Anthony Appia writes to another parent in the New York Times:
Children have survived to maturity for a couple of hundred thousand years without their parents invading their innermost thoughts. It can’t be necessary. Leave her diary alone.
That nosy parent in Slate also asks whether there is “a way for me to get her permission, or will even asking her ruin everything?” Big, deep sigh. If a child has not offered to read to you from their diary or handed it over for review, do not ask to read it. If they wanted to share it with you, they would have already done so. If you ask and they say no, they may worry you think they’re hiding something nefarious from you; or worse, they may feel like they have to say yes and expose words they’d meant only for themself.
They don’t deserve that. Don’t do that.
The only time you might be able to justify snooping among their private pages is if you actually suspect their safety is in danger—if you suspect they are being sexually abused, for example, or you’re deeply concerned about their mental health and worry they may harm themself. But the vast majority of the time, some vague sense of “I think they might be upset about something” is not cause for invading their privacy.