Allowing for Children's Privacy
Parents can foster healthy individuality in their children by giving them an appropriate degree of privacy. Privacy allows children to have time and space (physical and emotional both) to themselves, free from the need to please others. In this private space, children are empowered to start defining themselves, rather than be defined by others. Healthy privacy enables children to choose what is important to them, how they will express themselves, how they will manage their things, and how they want to spend their time.
Private Physical Space
When possible, children benefit from having physical space that is theirs to arrange. This may take the form of a child's own room. However, (as discussed in our Middle Childhood Parenting document), even if children have to share bedroom space with siblings they should at least get private dresser drawers that no one else is allowed to look at. As well, children should know that their diaries or other journals of writing or drawing are private, and no one will read them without their permission. If the family hasn't already done so, parents and children should begin knocking on doors and requesting permission to enter someone's private space as a sign of respect for privacy. Parents should also respect their children's privacy with their friends and not listen in on their children's phone calls or read their emails. This is true so long as children are following the family rules and parents do not suspect that their children are experiencing emotional problems, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, or are in a dangerous relationship or situation.
However, privacy is not an unlimited pass for children to do or to have whatever they want! If parents are noticing changes in children's behavior, health, or attitude that cannot be easily explained, parents may need to infringe on children's private spaces to determine if they are in an unhealthy situation. Children should be taught that the respect of privacy is a privilege that depends upon mutual trust. If that trust is broken, privacy may no longer be a privilege that parents will be able to honor. Sometimes parents find it helpful to warn children in advance about the limitations of privacy. However, if parents are concerned that a child will hide or destroy evidence of a poor choice, such as drug use, they may need to search that child's space without warning them in advance in order to confront them about such behavior. Obviously, as an unannounced search of this type will damage children's ability to trust in parents, such action should not be undertaken lightly.
Private Emotional Space
In addition to providing children with physical space within which they may expect to have privacy, parents can also offer their children a similar kind of emotional space. Younger children have very little emotional separation from their parents but also very little need for emotional space. As children enter middle childhood, they start to require some emotional space or separation in which they can explore an identity that does not involve their parents. Children may develop and explore particular interests, activities and opinions. Some of these interests and opinions may be at odds with what their parents think or are interested in. While children will still very much appreciate their parents' interest in these new and separate interests, they may not appreciate parents' intrusion into them at all.
Parents can express interest in what their children are doing by asking questions so as to learn more about what children are doing; asking to see art work or writing, or going to watch the game they are playing in. However, parents also need to respect their children's space and retreat if children do not want them to read their writing, or look at all their sketches. More importantly, parents should not try to copy their children's interests and make them their own. Children will probably only get embarrassed and annoyed if their parents start trying to dress like them, listen to the same music they listen to, and do all their activities with them. Children need some space to explore and to develop their own identities that parents cannot be a part of, but they will value their parents' interest and encouragement.
In order to provide children with private emotional space, parents must, in essence, allow a healthy psychological boundary to grow between themselves and their children, separating their own emotional identities from their children's identities. Maintaining healthy boundaries means that parents treat their children like children and not like adult equals or friends. Children should be loved and talked to; paid attention to and guided away from harm. Children should not become adult confidants. It's not okay for parents to use their children as "friends" or "listeners". Neither parents act like children's peers rather than their parents. In the same way that it is not healthy for divorced or separated (or frustrated) parents to bad mouth each other in front of children, it increasingly becomes the case in middle childhood that it is not healthy for parents to intrude without cause, in an unwelcome and uninvited manner, into their children's private lives.
Some parents find it very difficult to allow this healthy boundary between themselves and their children to form. If parents are struggling with a difficult personal problem and are tempted to talk about it with their children, they need instead to seek out an adult friend, family member, or mental health professional with whom to talk through their uncomfortable feelings and problems. Children who are burdened with parental worries and concerns may become confused and upset about their relationship with their parents; one moment they are their friend and confidant, the next they are being disciplined by this same person. In addition, burdening a child with their parents' problems forces them to become adult-like too early and they may be reluctant to try new things or explore new situations for fear of letting down their parents.