Caring Before Sharing

In the spring of 2009, I was a junior in high school and cable news anchors were warning parents about the dangers of sexting. For me, this was just another tech threat that my parents didn’t need to worry about, though they probably still would.  The internet and I grew up together, with the first website going live less than a year before I was born. My adolescence was filled with PSAs and parental reminders about the perils of technology and its potential to threaten my privacy, safety, and identity.

Technology can definitely bring danger into our lives. So can trampolines, the geese that live in public parks, and peanut butter. Even well-meaning, loving parents can pose a threat to privacy, safety, and identity. Right before a community meeting two weeks ago, a woman four or five seats down from me began talking about her thirteen-year-old daughter. In a room of 30 people, she was conversationally lamenting about this daughter’s incessant moodiness – and her daughter’s anxiety over the changes puberty were having on her vulva.

Now, it’s certainly possible that this woman had talked with her daughter about whether or not it was okay to share information about her vulva in a group of friends and strangers, but somehow I doubt it. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but think how mortified that poor girl would be if she knew what her mom was saying to all of these strangers. Thirteen-year-old me would have probably just curled right up into one of her turtlenecks and died of embarrassment.

This incidence has nagged me for the last two weeks, because I have another thought I just can’t shake. If that daughter knew what her mom was saying to all of those strangers, what would that teach her about privacy and boundaries? What would she learn about what it means to share information with someone you trust and care about?

As children develop, so will their sense of personal identity and their need for privacy. This development should also be accompanied by negotiations about ownership of information within the parent-child relationship. These negotiations are going to look different depending on loads of factors such as child age, personality, and social norms. There’s one thing that they should have in common, though – you and your child should be involved! If one party is making all the decisions about privacy and boundaries, you don’t have a negotiation over information any more. What you have is an hostage situation.

So what does a conversation about personal information look like with your teenager? It can be something as simple as, “Would it be okay if I shared this story about you with my friend?” This may lead to a conversation about where their general boundaries about personal information are. It may not. Either way, you’re modeling a conversation on boundary setting and information sharing for your child. This is an important tool that they can take with them into all of their relationships.
This doesn’t mean that every parent needs to check in with their child before they share anything. Sharing information about children is an important and often enjoyable way for parents to connect with others. But there’s a difference between sharing benign information and deeply personal information. If you find yourself about to share something very personal about your teenager, I encourage you to stop for a beat and ask yourself a few questions. First – Thinking back to our conversations about privacy and boundaries, would this be something my child would be comfortable with me sharing? Second – Is this something people need to know? Third – Would I want this information shared about me?

I’m quite sure that this mother in the meeting I attended didn’t mean anything malicious by sharing that information about her daughter. I’m also quite sure that I absolutely did not need to know about her daughter’s experiences with puberty. What I hope is that they have an opportunity to talk about privacy and boundaries, and that this anonymous daughter gets to apply what she learns in those talks in future relationships.

Other Resources:
Why I Decided to Stop Writing About My Children: An excellent, very personal piece from The New York times by a mom blogger
The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development: This is a great resource published by Johns Hopkins. Chapter Four speaks directly to identity formation and privacy.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous and inspired to do some academic reading, you can explore the works of Dr. Sandra Petronio.