When does a child’s right to privacy begin and a parent’s right to know end? I don’t have definitive answers but I do have what I hope will be some helpful guidelines.

Let’s begin by looking at the opposite ends of the continuum. To begin at the beginning, you start off with an infant, who grows into toddlerhood. Your two year-old does not require, nor will he generally seek, privacy. He takes no offense when you help him dress. She is not offended when you share the bathroom. And he typically does not mind you rummaging through his things. In fact, all of this parental intrusion seems fairly normal and necessary.

On the other end of the continuum, I have a 54 year-old friend whose parents are 87 and 88 years-old. They talk to him almost every day and want to know the details of his life, even those details my friend would like to keep private, such as when he isn’t feeling well. He doesn’t want his parents to worry. Now, there probably aren’t many parents who can’t relate to wanting to know things about their grown children that those children would prefer to keep personal. There may details about their intimate relationships, their finances, their children, their work and their health, among other things that they may not want their parent’s to know. Doesn't a grown child have the right to decide what information he or she will share with a parent?

Since I am a parent of grown men in their twenties, I understand the desire of parents to know about their children’s lives. After all, for all the years they lived with you, you pretty much couldn’t help but know most of what was going on in their lives simply because you lived under the same roof. Add to that your concern about their safety and well-being and you were motivated to know as much as possible about your children. Just because a child grows up doesn’t make that desire evaporate.

So, what’s a parent to do? When is it all right to violate your child’s privacy and when is it taboo? The issue mainly comes down to what you ultimately want for your children, how you teach them responsibility and trust.

Most parents will agree that there is no need for privacy before a child is two. Many, but not all, will agree that by the time their child is grown, the child should have the right to maintain privacy about any area he or she chooses, even though it may cause the parents dismay.

For those years in between, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What do you ultimately want for your child? Do you want an obedient child or one who is ultimately independent and responsible?

If the answer is that you want an obedient child, then I don’t believe you are looking far enough into the future. It is most likely that your children will outlive you. Who do you want them to obey when you are gone?

If you can agree that you want them to be able to be independent, responsible adults by the time you are gone, then shouldn’t you start to prepare them early since we never have any guarantees of how long we will be around?

Once your child reaches the magical age of two, he or she will be seeking some independence. Children at this age want to start doing things themselves—eating, drinking, dressing, choosing their activities, etc. Take this as a sign that your child is beginning to see him or herself as separate from you and may be looking for some personal space.

As a parent, you want to gradually increase privacy as you teach your child responsible behaviors to manage the new freedom.

2. How do you teach responsibility? Do you tell your children what to do or do you model, show and provide opportunities for your child to try out his/her new skill?

If your goal is to raise an independent, responsible adult, then you will provide learning opportunities in that direction. When parents tell their children what to do and how to think, what they set up, in essence, is either a rebellious child or a child who becomes very fearful and dependent.

You want to model for your children the behavior you expect. If you hate doing chores around the house, how can you reasonably expect your children to want to do theirs?

3. What do you believe about trusting your children? How do you respond when they let you down?

Once you have discussed and demonstrated a new behavior with your children, you need to trust them by providing opportunities for them to test it out. How will you ever know what responsible decisions they will make if you protect them from environments where they will be put to the test?

How will you respond when they don’t act in the way you’ve agreed? Do you punish them for “bad” behavior or do you take that opportunity for further teaching and education? Scientists have discovered that people do not learn when they are afraid. They act from the back of their brains, their reflexive center. They are programmed to do whatever is necessary to survive but they won’t learn anything new. Therefore, punishment may not be your most effective route.

The best approach is to take back some of the freedom until they can formulate better responses to the situation and then reinstate your trust to allow them to try again. How many times should you do this? As many as it takes.

All of this said, I know that as parents you still want to know what is happening with your children. The best way to do that is to follow the guidelines above and maintain open, honest, non-coercive, non-threatening communication with your child. When you do, they will be more likely to seek your counsel when they need advice.

So don’t read their diaries, go searching through their rooms, check the trunks of their cars, listen in on their phone conversations, invade their email inboxes or spy on their myspace accounts. Be the type of parent your child will trust. Be the parent your child can come to when he or she is in trouble. Be the parent your child will want to share his or her life with and you will have no reason to ever violate their privacy.

If you would like to learn more about how to do this type of parenting, then click here to sign up for our free Empowerment Parenting Tip Sheet.

Author's Bio: 

Kim Olver is a life coach and public speaker who has a graduate degree in counseling, is a National Certified Counselor and a licensed professional counselor in two states. She has worked in the helping profession since 1982 and has spent her entire life helping people get along better with the important people in their lives. Kim works with couples, parents and children, and individuals seeking to improve their lives. If you would like to learn more about how to do this type of parenting, then click here to sign up for our free Empowerment Parenting Tip Sheet.