[Week 23 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Why toddlers don’t have privacy rights
I have never met a toddler I could trust. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their endearing moments of (apparently) supreme thoughtfulness. But toddlers can go from sweet to impish in zero seconds flat. So, no, I don’t trust them.
When there are toddlers in the house, my radar is on. If I am in charge of the toddlers, my radar is tracking big time. They don’t get any privacy. I don’t have to knock before I enter. I don’t have to ask if I can watch what they are doing. I am more observant than the NSA.
Alas, or fortunately, depending on who you talk to, toddlers grow up. The question is: When are they grown up enough to have a reasonable expectation of privacy? I don’t think there is some magic age at which this happens. In a loving home with good communication, increased privacy for the children is something that will develop based on certain criteria.
- age and/or maturity of child
- particular activities ensuing
- who else is in the home
- recent history of child’s choices and behavior
- comparative sex of parent
When does sneaky matter?
The younger a child is, the more likely it is that attempts to hide mean he is trying to get away with something. Certainly any child old enough to walk may just wander to another room without nefarious plans, but even if he isn’t trying to hide, there is more than one reason to check on him whether or not he “wants to be alone.”
Obviously safety is a major concern. It is pretty amazing how fast a four year old can get out her father’s shaving supplies and go for the jugular. I do speak from experience. I don’t care how much privacy she might want in the bathroom, it is not healthy for her.
Destruction is another issue. It is very difficult to child-proof a house. There is no substitute for supervision – and even that will never be 100 percent. A parent can only keep trying. That’s why I have a beautiful cross stitched picture hanging in my house with mended scissor slashes across it’s skyline. That little fiasco was a three year old’s attempt to work on mommy’s project for her… in secret. I’m glad I interrupted when I did.
The naked truth
Young children are unconcerned about being seen naked, until one day they just are. I have always taken this as an indicator that it is time to begin giving them some privacy. However, this was not done in an all or nothing sort of way.
As long as children need parents, their parents have the prerogative to decide how much privacy is appropriate for a given situation. Such privacy may be temporary and subject to quick reversal. It is similar to the issue of property rights that I discussed in Guidelines to Children’s Property Rights in the Home.
Why do you want that door closed?
There are times for closed doors. Sometimes someone really wants quiet. Or maybe there is gift wrapping going on. Those are just a couple of examples. However, I think a general open door policy for children in a family is a good policy.
Open doors keep children honest and interactive. There really shouldn’t be much that is going on in a child’s life that a door needs to be closed for. It avoids regular conflict about why a door is closed. It makes closing doors with a bad attitude less of an option.
This means that it becomes normal to explain reasons for a closed door. The idea is not that a child is subject to a parent’s arbitrary whims of power, but rather that the child is led in deciding how and when to put a barrier between himself and the rest of the family. He can learn to use closed doors in appropriate ways, but see the relational value in open doors.
Who is in there with you?
There definitely comes a point at which a child needs to make more of their own decisions about who they spend time with and how. After all, one of the main goals of parenting is to help a child develop self-control. At some point, they need to really practice their self-control, solo.
Still, it is perfectly reasonable for parents to continue to guide their children in these matters. Children are less experienced in both evaluating trustworthiness in others and in understanding potential consequences. An older, say 6-12 year, old child will often trust a person they just met more than is merited. Having an open door policy is a way to protect your child from the manipulation of other children.
How a visiting child reacts to an open door policy is a useful test of what kind of child he is. If the visitor is antagonistic toward parental input and household policy, he is probably not going to be a good influence. He is also probably not going to be a good friend since it is indicative of deeper problems.
I want to trust you again
We all fail sometimes. Children will fail. Sometimes trust and privacy privileges need to be re-established. It is up to the parent to approach this in a way that makes the child feel it is possible, like it is likely.
Any restrictions on privileges should not be vindictive or angry. The child should get the clear message that the parent wants the child to learn to be independent. The parent wants the child to know how to deal with important choices when there is no one to be responsible for him. If handled like this, restrictions can be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Sometimes the issue may be how other family members are treated. Other times it may be a problem with lying. In cases like these, open doors and the subsequent transparency allow for the healing flow of interactions. It can help a child come to grips with how he treats others being an important counter-point to the desire for individual privacy.
Who should go in there?
No matter how carefully you parent, there is bound to be the occasional crisis. Communication of principles and relationship priorities will hopefully have formed a foundation that make dealing with the crisis go relatively smoothly. While in the midst of it, though, there might be uncomfortable moments about which parent should intervene.
Some of this will depend on the sex of the parent compared to the sex of the child. A young girl learning to deal with the discomforts of hormones may not know how to talk to her father at that point. If the father is the only one available, they both may have to learn to overcome that cultural complication. I know of a couple of fathers who were single parents who did this just fine.
How important is privacy?
It is one of the ironies of life that when children are grown and still living at home, they seem to want less privacy than when they were growing up! It may be that knowing they can now have it at home almost anytime they want makes them want it less. Hopefully it is also because they see the value of relationship and spending time with people. It has also been expressed to me that it is because getting out into the adult world has made them appreciate the peaceful relationships at home.
Desire for privacy is often not wanting to strictly be alone, but a desire for time to think or not have to meet someone else’s demands. Sometimes it can be due to embarrassment or vulnerability, such as when practicing for a presentation. Sometimes it is the need to protect sensitive information.
Whatever privacy is for the person desiring it, the person on the outside should see respecting that as a chance to honor the other person. Even a parent choosing in a particular situation to grant privacy is honoring who that child is becoming. Privacy is not just important because things need to be kept secret, although some things do in this broken world. Privacy is a way to let others reveal themselves to us in the way they want to. Help your children to understand other people’s privacy from that point of view, too.