I Read My Kids' Text Messages -- And I Learn A Lot About Other People's Kids

by Angela Hampton
Originally Published: 
A mother reading her teen's text messages on her phone
LeszekCzerwonka / Getty

I read my kid’s text messages, IM’s, DM’s and I even hang around when she’s FaceTiming. I don’t snoop privately, behind her back. I do it right in front of her.

It’s not that I enjoy hovering; in fact, sometimes I want to run away screaming because I can’t stand to read one more text about how someone said something to someone else in math class and life is so hard.

Think about it. When we were kids, we were lucky to have a phone in our room, we definitely didn’t carry one in our backpack to school, and it sure wasn’t a mini computer (I’ve told all of my kids about how excited I was when I got a piano-shaped phone with keys for the numbers). If we were in our rooms on the phone, some annoying little sibling was probably banging on the door the entire time wanting a turn. The most privacy I had was when my friend slipped a note in the cracks in my locker. So when did we decide that our kids “deserve” more privacy than that?

I never took my lack of privacy as an affront to my ability to become an adult. My parents were in charge, and they were there to teach me what was right and wrong. The age of the smartphone does not remove that responsibility from our shoulders. In fact, I argue that it makes it even more necessary. That’s why my kids sign a contract when they get their phones. They agree that their phones are public family property, open for inspection at any time without notice. It’s simple — if you’re writing something you don’t want me reading, you probably screwed up.

I know, some of you will think I’m totally uncool. Maybe you’re calling me a helicopter parent, but guess what? I probably know more about how your kid behaves when you’re not around than you do. Sometimes I grab my daughter’s phone and she rolls her eyes at me and sighs like life is terrible, but overall, taking the time to actually invade my teenager’s privacy is the best parenting move I’ve made so far.

Here’s the thing about this kind of relationship — since she knows I’m going to see it anyway, and she knows that I don’t “freak out” if I read something I don’t like; she volunteers more information than I would ever be able to discover on my own (since I can’t possibly read all 1,149 texts she shared with your kid this week). Not only did she come to me and tell me when a boy asked her to send a “bootie pic,” but she showed me the text conversation where he asked your daughter for one, too. Did you know he proposed some things to your daughter that required her to Google the terminology?

I know that your healthy, volleyball-playing daughter is skipping meals to lose weight. I know that your son who’s the class clown is being viciously bullied by other boys. I know that your quiet Christian daughter made a racist joke on Snapchat that she thought was harmless, but that could easily have landed her on the expulsion list at school.

I know that your sweet, handsome, high honor-roll-making son texts girls all day in class, and that he calls them “hoes” and “sluts” because he thinks it’s funny. I know that your smart and usually kind daughter started a text group just to talk about another girl behind her back — and then they told her about it, causing her to contemplate suicide.

These are the “good” kids. These are my kids, and your kids. You wonder why so many kids are depressed to the point of suicide today? Invade your kid’s privacy more, and I bet you’ll figure it out.

I’m often shocked when I see the other side of these kids (my own included). I read thoughts that I didn’t know she had. I learn all kinds of acronyms that you probably don’t realize exist. We use the snaps and text messages as a conversation starter, not a judgment zone. I don’t fix the problems for her, even when I really, really want to, but I do help her figure out the best way to walk through them and learn from them.

It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes she hates it and sometimes I do, too. It can be boring, infuriating and time consuming. It can be stressful, painful, and confusing. If it’s all of those things for an educated adult, can you imagine how your child is being impacted by the messages they receive every day. What are you doing about it?

Maybe you’re saying, “Well, I’d want to know if my child was sending something like that.” I’m calling bullshit on that right now. The few times I’ve approached other parents about things I’ve seen, heard, read or been told it is met with awkwardness, denial, and a friendship status change. I’ve decided that it’s not my job to parent your kids anyway.

I bet you my next paycheck and the ¾ of a bottle of my favorite $10 wine that remains in my fridge that there is something on your child’s phone or social media right now that you wouldn’t expect and wouldn’t approve of. You can’t be surprised someday when your kid becomes someone other than whom you thought they should be if you don’t really know who they are right now.

Here’s your friendly warning: Your kid can be an asshole. I promise. Mine, too. She has said some cringe-worthy things that I almost can’t believe (which reminds me how thankful I am that those triangle-shaped notes from my locker days could be thrown out and not saved electronically). Nobody likes to hear criticism about his or her kid, right? It sucks. But if we don’t start learning who our kids are when they’re behind a screen, the next generation is in big trouble.

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