OK to eavesdrop on my kid’s chats?

Today’s Jam

We recently bought our twelve-year-old son his first laptop computer. When we set it up, we installed a program to block inappropriate sites and spoke with him at length about other related issues. He is a fairly mature kid for his age and usually respects our rules. Last night, as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner I noticed that my son left his laptop open on one of the counters. When I picked it up to wipe down the surface beneath it, I glanced at the screen and saw that he was chatting with friends. While I usually try not to read his correspondences, I quickly discovered that one of his classmates had posted something that I found very offensive. I am not a “fuddy-duddy” who is easily scandalized by curse words and the like, but this brief posting included a racial slur. I also know this boy’s parents quite well and think they would be very disappointed by his behavior. Should I speak with them about this post? Do I need to first speak with my son? What about the fact that I eavesdropped on his conversation? My son knows that his parents have access to his passwords, but I feel some guilt about intruding on a private conversation among friends.

Dan Brosgol says…

e.Dan Brosgol

I know lots of 12-year olds, and many of them put up a good front. The biggest and baddest of them wield their iPhone 5Cs, flaunt their eccentric lacrosse shorts, and chatter incessantly and loudly about any number of things. I see them in town at the mall, walking in packs, being just as foolish and clueless as I was almost a quarter-century ago. While they might present as sassy and confident, in reality they’re struggling to discover themselves, trying on different behaviors and personas. If technology has done nothing else, it has accelerated the pace at which kids can explore new identities online and get themselves into big trouble doing so. It is now easier than ever to do something stupid and face the consequences of it almost immediately. Left to their own devices (pun intended), kids will learn this lesson in painful and public ways.

With my own pre-teen, my policy is clear: I see everything he downloads and emails as a matter of course. I am not a “helicopter parent,” I just know that kids need careful supervision. In response to the specific details of this case, I would have no qualms about speaking to my son about what I saw on his laptop. I would address the issue with him directly and as quickly as possible. 
As for the parents of his friend, the same is also true. If they are actually good friends of mine, I wouldn’t hesitate to talk to them about their son’s posting. I know that if my child posted a racist comment online and my friends saw it and didn’t tell me about it, I’d be very upset.

It’s crucial to remember that a 12-year old is still a kid; and middle school kids need clear guidance. This is especially true in a world in which cyber-bullying, sexting, and online gossiping are all at our children’s fingertips.

Dan Brosgol is the Director of Prozdor, a 500-student supplementary school for students in grades 6-12 operated out of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a BA in Politics from Brandeis University and both a certificate in Jewish Day School Education and an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. Dan is pursuing a doctorate in education at Northeastern University and is regular blogger for JewishBoston.com. He is an avid runner and Boston sports fan, and lives in Bedford, MA, with his wife and four children..

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz says…

sara meirowitzI’m the parent of a 12-week-old, not a 12-year-old, so I don’t have personal parenting experience to throw into the mix. But as a rabbi and a teacher of teenagers, I view a parent’s main role as a coach and an advocate, helping one’s children learn to stand up for themselves and act more morally in the world.

To this end, I certainly agree with Dan that you should have a conversation with your child about his friend’s comment. You have already established a strong foundation of trust with him—he knows that you read his postings and expects to hear your thoughts. This is a great opportunity to educate him about the moral values that you hope he will live by.

But when it comes to talking to the parents of the child who made the offensive remark, this is where Dan and I part ways. While you have access to your child’s chats, they are not meant for you—you are, in fact, eavesdropping (with your son’s permission) on a private communication. You have the opportunity here to teach your child the ethical value of privacy, telling him that you will only talk to his friend’s parents with his permission.

This conversation also gives you the opportunity to talk to your child about standing up for his own beliefs. Did he find his friend’s behavior offensive? If so, can he come up with some ways to kindly, but firmly, tell his classmate that the racial slur was inappropriate? You could ask your son if he would like you to be the intermediary and speak to his friend’s parents—that may be easier for him than rebuking his peer directly. But I wouldn’t recommend talking to them without consulting your son. Correcting the friend’s ethical lapse is not worth breaking your son’s confidence.

So in sum: definitely talk to your child and help him process what was wrong about his friend’s behavior. But let your son determine whether he talks to his classmate or whether you talk to the parents. Your main parenting duty is to help your child learn to think for himself and to stand up for his own beliefs—not to intervene in his private affairs.

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz teaches Biblical and Rabbinic Literature at Gann Academy, the Boston area’s pluralist Jewish high school. A graduate of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, she also works as a freelance writer, editor and teacher. Her prose and poetry has been published in several anthologies and journals, including LILITH and SHMA magazines. She lives in Brookline, MA, with her spouse David Finkelstein and their delightful son Rafi..

Now, what do YOU say?

Our panelists have spoken, now what do you say? Should parents read their kids’ online conversations? And if they do — and if they are horrified — then what? Should they have a chat of their own? If you have any thoughts on this, write a comment and who knows, maybe your parents will read it. Or your kids.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)
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