Virtually all kids want more privacy as they enter adolescence

 But kids differ.  Some kids maintain good relations with parents, continuing to share most of their daily activities, while sharing somewhat fewer details about their friendships and feelings.  Other kids clam up entirely.  School work, friendships, after school activities, favorite tv shows or video games . . . All are off limits. 


One of my undergraduate students, Gizem Izekenderoglu, and I recently completed a study trying to find out. 

For the past ten years, researchers from Chile to Sweden have learned a great deal about why kids choose to share information with parents when they disagree with them, rather than lie or simply avoiding the topic. 

Research on privacy has shown that the relationship between kids hiding things from parents to preserve their privacy and parents prying into their kids' business creates a downward spiral that leaves both of them unhappy.  Parents are good at detecting lies and avoidance and respond by redoubling their efforts to glean what information they can.  Kids respond to parental prying by pushing back and hiding more.  Over time kids share less and hide more.  And parents pry more and know less.

Bad times for everyone.

We also know that what parents think of as showing a healthy interest in their kids lives is often seen by kids as intrusive, prying behavior (see Walking on Eggshells: When Good Parenting Becomes Prying.)

Mom or Kid Led?

But all of this work depends on what kids (and sometimes parents) tell us.  We wanted to know if differences between kids' desire for privacy depended on what the kids were like or how their mothers behaved.

To find out, we brought 55 mothers and their children into the lab to enage in two tasks.  We chose our age group carefully.  All of the children were just at the cusp of adolescence - 5th and 6th grade.  In our local communities that is right at the juncture between elementary and middle school.  We chose that age because our previous research has shown that by age12 there are large individual differences in kids' beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority (the extent to which kids' believe their parents have a right to set rules) and that this has a big influence on whether or not kids choose to share information with parents. 

Building a squid

We asked the families to engage in two tasks that we thought would bring out differences in how they worked together.  First, we asked moms and kids to build a squid together out of K'Nex.  Why?  Because it was a lot like doing homework.  Moms got the instructions, but the kids had to do the building.  What we wanted to see was how good the child was at asking for help when they were stuck and whether moms could give help and directions without taking over the project.  .

Asking moms and kids to argue.

The second task we asked dyads to engage in was much more direct: get into a fight.  Actually, we asked them to discuss one thing that the child really wanted to change around the household.  The kids' choice.  Topics ranged from the mundance (why can't we get a second gaming system?) to the profound (I want Dad to stop drinking).  We watched how kids approached the task and also how moms listened, probed, and responded.  Then we watched the videos, carefully coding mothers and children on how warm they were towards each other and how sensitive mothers were (plus a dozen more behaviors not used in this set of analyses).

Sensitivity was a key measure here.  It assessed the extent to which mothers listened to and responded to what the child was saying, rather than to their own pre-conceptions.  It also assessed how they advanced and retreated in their interactions with the child depending on cues the child was giving off.  In other words, it assessed the extent to which the parent let the child lead the conversation and the extent to which they responded to the child's concerns rather than their own.  Importantly, it didn't mean that the parent didn't hold their ground or defend their position.  Just that they listened to the child as they did so.

In addition to watching parents and kids, we also asked kids to tell us about their own perceptions of their moms: how warm they are, how disrespectful, and how strict.  They also told us about their own beliefs about their mom's right to set rules and how often they agreed with them.

Who wanted the most privacy?

It turns out that kids' desire for privacy depended a lot more on what we - the scientific observers - saw the moms doing than on how the child described their mom.

Not surprisingly, kids who believed their moms had a greater right to set rules and agreed with them more wanted less privacy.

Equally expected, kids who said their mothers were disrespectful - who called them names, insulted them, or nosed into their business - also wanted more privacy.

What was more interesting was what DIDN'T predict . . .

Strict parenting doesn't lead to more pushback from kids.

Strictness wasn't important.  Neither were the number of rules parents set nor how strict parents were about enforcing them.  That's important, because one common theory about why kids keep things private is that they're trying to protect themselves from strict parents.  That doesn't seem to be true.

Insensitive, overwhelming parenting does.

The two most important predicters of kids' desire for privacy were things that we observed mom's doing.

First, mom's who were sensitive to their kids, listened, and let the child lead had kids who wanted less privacy and were more comfortable sharing information.

In other words, when parents respected children's boundaries, kids responded by bringing those boundaries down.

Second, when moms were warm, kids responded by wanting MORE, not less, privacy.  That's especially true when parents were both warm AND intrusive.  The graph below shows how much privacy kids' expect over 20 different issues.  A score of '1' means they consider the issue to be 'not private'.  A score of '3' is private  When parents are high in warmth, chidlren's desire for privacy increases.  When moms are low in sensitivity it goes up as well.  But when moms are both . .  desire for privacy goes through the roof.

Both warmth and intrusiveness increase kids' desire for privacy

Our interpretation of why warmth is associated with a greater desire for privacy is that when parents are warm, children need to create a stronger sense of identity by creating a bit of a barrier between themselves and their parents.  We followed up on this by looking at the distinction between desire for privacy (which is usually considered a healthy act of autonomy) and lying and deception, which are not. 

Kids whose mothers.were warm wanted privacy, but were not deceptive.  Kids whose mothers were intrusive, on the other hand, tended to be deceptive.  But kids whose mothers were both intrusive and warm were seemed to be steamrolling the kids.  And that's when the barricades came up.

What's the bottom line?

Privacy is a healthy sign that children are developing a clearer distinction between who they are and who their parents are.  It's an indicator of the developing autonomy of adolescence.

When mothers are sensitive and respect their children's right to set those boundaries, but still hold their ground and explain their own beliefs, kids are willing to continue to talk, to share, and also to listen and to acknowledge that yes, their parents still have the right to set rules and to care for them.

When mothers try to plow over those boundaries - even in a warm and maybe even a loving way - the barriers go way up.

And that's not good for anyone.

What ping pong looks like at 12

My mentor, Urie Bronfenbrenner, used to talk about sensitive parenting in infancy as a ping pong game.  In ping pong, the key to a successful volley is that both partners share control of the action.

In infancy, when parents push too hard, infants look away.  Sensitive parenting allows infants to share control by smiling back when the child smiles, by letting the baby look away when they get too excited, and by trusting them to come back and re-establish contact when they're ready.  You can't engage in this kind of happy interaction if you keep shoving your face in their way when they avert their eyes.

Keeping young adolescents engaged, talking, and not defending their boundaries may require similar skills.

It's not that parents should drop the rules.

It IS not pushing too hard and overwhelming them

And it definitely involves remaining engaged while respecting their boundaries

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


More from this series on parents, prying, and privacy . .

Get Out!  Sneaky Kids and Prying Parents Make a Toxic Mix

Walking On Eggshells: When Does Good Parenting Cross the Line to Prying?.

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