Walking on Eggshells: When Good Parenting Becomes Prying

When does monitoring kids cross the line to prying?

Posted Apr 20, 2011

Parents' lives are full of contradictions.

Parental monitoring - keeping tabs on your children's day-to-day activities - is an important component of good parenting

You can't parent effectively without knowing what's going on in your kid's life.  And you can't take steps to forestall problems or shape the environment so that kids make good choices for themselves without being sensitive to your children's moods and watchful of small, early signs of problems.  You can't even celebrate their triumphs, joys, and everyday good spirits without being around and keeping up with things.

The problem is, HOW?.

Bursting in and demanding information doen'st work. It backfires.

The first essay in this series, Get Out! Sneaky Kids and Prying Parents Make a Toxic Mix, described recent work showing that when parents pry, kids respond by becoming more secretive, with the long term result that parents know less than they would have if they'd just laid back a little.

In other words, when parents pry, the result is that they know less about their kids, not more.

Kids lose too.  When kids respond to privacy invasion by becoming more secretive, parents become even more invasive, responding to suspected problems and hidden information by becoming more and more intrusive.  A lose-lose situation.

So what's the balance?  When does good monitoring cross the line to unhealthy prying? 

We know that kids respond to perceived prying by putting up barriers to healthy communication.  But what, exactly, is prying?

Brad Brown and colleague Hsun-yu Chan recently presented the results of a studying asking exactly that question.   They surveyed 227 adolescents and their parents about what strategies parents typically used to gather information about their teens' lives and how intrusive teens thought these strategies were.

Some of their answers were surprising.

What do parents do?

Probably not surprising was what parents did to find out information.  Parents were asked how often they used a list of 21 different overt and covert strategies (rated from 'never' to 'more than several times'). 

Most common strategies (several times or more) included:

  • Ask child for details after activity
  • Ask child for details before activity
  • Ask child in general conversation
  • Gone to school event
  • Gone to community event

In other words, parents did the things that parents are supposed to do - talk to their kids and spend time with them.

Least frequent strategies included:

  • Tried to get information from child's friend
  • Ask others you know about child's relationships
  • Looked through child's personal belongings
  • Asked someone outside family for information
  • Asked child's friend to tell you about child/peers

They were least likely to network, pry, or spy.  So good so far.

How Do Kids Feel About It?

More surprising, to me at least, was how kids responded to different strategies.  Brown and Choi had a panel of 18 teens rate each of the 21 parent strategies on a 1-3 scale from 1 (not really intrusive) to 3 (intrusive). 

The strategies rated least intrusive were:

  • Found out about child / peers by accident
  • Learned something without even trying
  • Called another parent to check on activity
  • Asked someone outside the family for information
  • Ask others you know about child's relationships

Those last three surprised me.  I would have thought that kids would find calling other parents and talking to other people kind of snoopy.  But no, kids were fine with that. 

On the other hand, what did teens see as most intrusive?

  • Asked for details before event
  • Shared info on children with other parents
  • Ask for details after event
  • Eavesdrop on conversations of child with friend
  • See what child writes on computer

Eavesdropping, reading chats, Facebook, e-mail - okay, I can see the teen feeling spied on.  But look at the others:

Asking for details before your child goes out someplace?  (Isn't that what parents are supposed to do?)

Sharing information with other parents?  (If it's okay for parents to ASK other parents about you, why can't they TELL other parents about you?  Is it because parents know a lot more grotty details about your life - simply because they live with you - than the parent of a friend might know?  So what's shared is potentially more private?)

Asking for details after an event?  You mean, like asking "How was the dance?  Did you have fun?"

The Real Puzzle: Guess Who's The Most Nosy

Who engages in the most intrusive behaviors?  Not the parents who are worried about their kids.  Not the ones who think they have every right to butt into their kids' business.

No, it's the parents who have the most positive relationship with their kids and the ones who just want to know about the good aspects of their teen's social lives. GOOD aspects. 

The more parents were worried about negative aspects about peers, the LESS intrusive they were. 


The parents who are most likely to pry and ask intrusive questions - as seen by their kids - are the ones who are least worried.

And the ones who were most worried were least likely to ask questions.

The next question up for researchers: Why? 

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Next post in this series:

When kids see their parents as nosy - is it because the child is overly sensitive or because the parent really is pushy?