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I refuse to be the mom who's spying on her kids online

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. She lives in Reno with her husband, three young kids, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

My mother's spying nearly ruined our relationship

My mother was a notorious eavesdropper. She once fell from the top bunk of my bed, where she had flattened herself to listen in on my phone conversation with my boyfriend. There were no boundaries to her eavesdropping, which made my teenage years a struggle for us both.

She would crawl across the floor behind me to look over my shoulder at my AOL instant messenger conversations on the family computer in the living room. I was always listening for the tell-tale click of the other phone line being picked up. I hid my diaries inside the legs of folded jeans in my dresser in an attempt to keep her prying eyes away.

I promised myself when I was a teenager that I would never invade my kids' privacy the way my mother did. Now that I am a mother, I believe in my children's privacy more than ever. I think respecting their boundaries is the only way to keep them safe, not the other way around.

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Because even though it annoyed me to no end, my mother's eavesdropping never worked. She never uncovered any dastardly secrets and it certainly didn't stop me from getting into trouble. I still managed to sneak out for parties, drive around with boys I wasn't supposed to and, to be honest, that teenage rebellion probably felt all the better because of my mother's invasive parenting. I learned to censor myself whenever she was near so my rebel transgressions flew under the radar most of the time. (I mean, I still got caught every now and again, but c’est la vie.)

The total lack of privacy and respect left me feeling very oppressed during my teenage years, when I was already a powder keg of emotions. The limitations on my personal space led to unparalleled angst and resentment. It was like living with my very own CIA agent (albeit a bit less stealthy) and I absolutely hated it. My mother and I had no relationship to speak of during my late adolescence because her lack of boundaries left me too angry to let my walls down. She broke my trust so regularly and blatantly that I wouldn’t dream of confiding in her, even when I desperately wanted to.

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Now that I have kids of my own, though, I finally understand my mother’s impulse to eavesdrop. I hate not knowing what happens during my son’s days, and for goodness sake, he’s only in kindergarten. I want to know who he is hanging out with and if they are kind and if he is behaving himself and how he spends his time and what he is thinking about — and I can only imagine how this feeling will fester as the years go on.

I want to have a good relationship with my children as they grow older, though, and I know this means I cannot go down the road my mother did. If I want their respect and trust as the years go on, I have to give them space to feel like they have refuge from me when they need it.

So I will never read a diary or listen in on a conversation that wasn't meant for me. They will never find me scrolling through their text messages or social media accounts. It's simply not worth the damage it will do to our relationship.

However, sometimes I do wonder if I’ll know where to draw the line.

I don't want my kids to feel like they need to hide their journals inside of folded pants, but at the same time, where do I set boundaries in a world so different from my own adolescence? Social media and smartphones are a whole different animal than a landline phone and a family computer in the living room. How do I balance keeping my kids safe with their need for a little space and privacy?

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In truth, I think it will come down to trial and error as the years go on. Like my own parents, I’ll do the best I can and hope that it turns out all right in the end. I’ll do my best to impose limits on technology without resorting to snooping. I’ll mess up, readjust and start over like I’ve had to with all aspects of parenting.

I’ll try my best to encourage an open relationship where my kids feel comfortable coming to me. I want them to feel like they can trust me, because as soon as I break their trust, I know from experience there is no going back.

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