I tell my daughter: "Don't ever read someone else's journal. You're breaking someone's trust. It may well drive you two apart. And there's a good chance you'll get your feelings hurt."
Not bad advice, I tell myself. I'm confident that she'll follow it. The question is: Will I?
I'm delighted that my "tween" is a journal keeper. She hoards leopard-print, denim and snazzy black journals and fills them with mystery, self-discovery and comfort. All over the house, she leaves evidence: doodles by the phone, memo pads wedged in the back seat of the car, notes crinkled into pockets of jeans stuffed in the laundry hamper. I'm always tempted by these folded secrets. In her room, my eye wanders to the journal on her pillow. I want to peek at the words, find out more about her world and be reassured that she's OK. Is there any harm in it, after all?
There are strong reasons why my daughter's journal should always be free from prying eyes, even mine. Here are six things to consider before you peek.
What do you think? Should adults have the right to read children's journals? Why or why not? Do you have any personal experience with this issue that bolsters your opinion on the matter? We want to hear your take on this journaling issue. Selected submissions will be published in the November/ December 2002 issue. Send your response (no more than 200 words, please) to firstname.lastname@example.org with the Subject Line: Kids Journals. Personal Journaling has the right to edit the submissions, and publish them electronically and in any of our print publications. Include your full name (as you would like it to appear in print), mailing address and phone number. We will notify you only if your response is selected for publication. Deadline: July 20
1. Honor Trust
Reading your child's journal violates trust. Carly, a high schooler, told me about her sense of loss when someone stole her backpack—journal inside. Her consolation was, "At least I don't know the person reading it." That in mind, imagine someone filching your journal. Ouch. Now, imagine the culprit isn't a stranger, but someone close to you. Can you taste the hurt and anger?
Go one step further, and picture this person as your superior: a boss, mentor or pastor, judging what you wrote and wielding punishment or reward. Pretty unpleasant, isn't it?
I once lived in a situation where my journals were being read. Each time, it felt like a trampling of my sacred space, an arsonist's match, a church burning. You wouldn't want your children to needlessly experience that anguish. Think about it, next time you consider peeking.
2. A Lesson in Self-Respect
Respecting your child's privacy teaches self-respect. In the middle school where I teach journaling, I moved class out to the commons one afternoon. Mrs. Campbell, a staff person, came by and curiously snatched up a student's journal. Her casual air reminded me how often adults assume a kid's work is theirs for the browsing. I spoke up: "You'll have to ask Daniel before you look at that."
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Campbell. "May I?"
Daniel sat straighter in his chair. Suddenly, the whole atmosphere changed from one of carelessness to respect.
How can a child develop respect for others, if he doesn't experience it for himself? Adults and parents are respect cultivators. We nurture worth when we protect privacy. By refusing to pry, we're saying, "I honor you. You have a right to your own private thoughts and feelings." In turn, the child acknowledges others' rights to what is their own—from property to ideas to emotions.
3. Recognize Worth
Respecting your child's journal recognizes him as a full person. Our children's feelings, opinions and ideas are not "lesser." Their thoughts are 100 percent real—at whatever age.
Wisdom tells us, "Children are not adults to be molded but people to be unfolded."
Molding makes this statement: "When you grow up, you can think for yourself but not now."
Unfolding says: "You are not a fledgling person. Your insights matter. I won't ignore, trample or pry into your private thoughts just because you're not yet an adult."
4. Invite Self-Exploration
Respecting a child's journal frees him from worry. Sheila, an eighth grader in my journaling class, sounded anxious and hopeless. "If Mom finds my journal, she reads it," she said. "I tried hiding it, but that didn't work. So I've stopped writing a lot of things down."
Under threat of your snooping, a teen imagines you over her shoulder, reading about her newest crush, her secret dreams or her frustrations with you. She censors herself when she knows you don't agree; she worries about hurting your feelings. At the least, she fusses over handwriting and spelling. All the delight is drained, the freedom gone.
Young people need a safe place to explore who they are without being policed, judged or hampered. They're experimenting with opinions and forming identities. If they can't be freely themselves in their own private journals, how will they come to know and express themselves in the world? 5. Nurture Growth
Respecting your child's journal builds emotional health. A child who journals without inhibition has a starting place for dealing with life, a tool for personal growth. He's safe to face feelings. He's more apt to work through problems, knowing no one is going to pry. As a result, he might feel freer to talk about problems with you, another adult or a friend. Journaling guides him to inner strength and maturity.
6. Promote Writing
Respecting your child's journal promotes more journaling. You'll never build a more creative home than one in which journaling is honored and encouraged. The child is free to dabble, daydream, gripe, joke, tell stories or make confessions, doodle cartoons or architectural designs, compose songs, divulge wishes, keep memories and catch insights. Upholding privacy lets these miracles happen. It's as if you're guarding the path to your child's soul.
The Only Exception
But what if you sense your child is in stress, trouble or some kind of danger? Maurice Elias, co-author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child (Three Rivers Press), says that when we have concerns about our children, we should talk to them—first. Then we should make sure they are talking to trusted others—counselors, coaches, grandparents, relatives. Even after this step, reading a journal isn't justified. Elias says, "Before I would read a confidential journal, I would take my child to a counselor."
Only in the most extreme circumstances—for the safety of your child—should you ever consider reading a confidential journal.
Once, quite by accident, I found a crumpled journal page, wadded up in a backpack, that revealed things I didn't know my child was going through. The entry helped me to make a life-changing decision. I was lucky to get the message. However, if I had been listening to my child, talking and seeking resources, I would have come to the same conclusion.
I've found it helpful to let my journaler know where I stand on this issue. "I just want to let you know," I told her, "it's against my policy to read your journal. I'd never even think about it, unless you were in some kind of rare, extreme danger."
Was it just my imagination, or did her backpacks and bookshelves suddenly boast even more journals?
I know this for sure, anyway. One of the best ways I can care for her is to protect her journal privacy. So I shut her door and decide to set a date when I can take her to breakfast instead. There, we can talk, and I'll get a chance to look into her world. In the meantime, I'll keep buying those leopard-print, denim or snazzy black journals, knowing that there are some things Mom doesn't need to know.
This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.