WEST JORDAN, Utah — If you ask Hilary Wood what makes her grateful, she may tell you how glad she is that her daughter Sophie, 11, likes to show her what she's doing on her cellphone or online.
So far, Wood and her husband Todd don't get a lot of pushback from Sophie on how much they monitor her activities, whether online or in the neighborhood, she said.
"She likes to show me what she's done and she has to ask before she posts anything. The answer is usually yes. I'm not too worried about it, and she hasn't done anything to make me worry."
That doesn't mean the Woods don't pay attention: Not too long ago, Sophie was watching YouTube and came across mature content she wasn't seeking or expecting. She told them. Now her YouTube is the kid-friendly filtered version.
The girl's parents know that as she gets older, the risks she encounters in virtual and real worlds will likely grow, posing new questions about how best to keep their daughter safe and how much oversight is too much. Parents in today's world routinely grapple with those questions.
Experts say it's risky to provide too little oversight to kids. But they also worry about developmental consequences of overdoing oversight.
It's a "hard balance, two sides of the same coin," said Christopher Hadnagy, CEO of the Innocent Lives Foundation, who sees potential risks on both paths.
A parent's goal should be to raise kids to become responsible, resilient and capable adults. Succeeding depends largely on whether parents figure out the monitoring balance, said Rick Capaldi, a family therapist, co-founder of a Southern California school-focused program called Outreach Concern and author of "21st Century Parenting: A Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children in an Unstable World."
But too much surveillance is stunting, he declared.
The virtual world
Monitoring kids online is actually pretty simple, at least with younger kids. Experts agree that world requires some monitoring and discussion, including acknowledging that not everyone online is who he or she claims to be.
Hadnagy said parents should "know all the things (children do) online, giving more and more freedom as it is earned by making responsible decisions and following house rules."
He recommends friending or following each of a child's social media accounts, knowing all passwords for emergencies or to check up and paying attention to any groups, discussions and other online involvement.
"All of the above should not be a stealth mission but an open discussion" about how a parent intends to monitor online activity, with "clear, defined consequences for breaking the rules."
But it's possible to go too far with oversight.
Children need more privacy as they get older — and not just online, said Hadnagy. "As young adults, they will have emotions, feelings and thoughts they may not want to share with you right away. They may fear rejection from you, fear hurting you and at times just be angry and want to vent. It can be harmful to your children if they feel they have no safe place to talk or vent that you don’t know about. Think about how you might feel if your boss monitored every email, conversation and text you sent?
"If my child is showing balance, responsibility and open communication, I am more prone to monitor less. If my child is struggling, having bad relationships or proving to make bad decisions, I will monitor more and have more discussions to help them through the rough times," he said.
The over-parenting challenge
Tamar Blank, a psychologist in Riverdale, New York, keeps in mind the goal of good parenting: To raise children to be independent, capable and confident adults. She said research makes clear that goal can only be reached if children have real opportunities to explore and learn on their own.
"As parents, we provide scaffolding and guidance as much as we can, then we must relinquish control and have faith in what we have taught them. Hopefully, we have not taught them a lesson, but inspired them with a lifestyle," she said.
Among the most valuable gifts a parent gives a child is letting that child fail, said Capaldi. Growth comes from taking some risk and trying new things, even if it doesn't turn out as hoped.
Yet some parents go to great lengths to prevent their children from failing or experiencing pain or sorrow. That's a parenting fail, he said.
"A parent who is overly involved doesn't support risk-taking, doesn't support independent decision-making. For a child to grow up to feel independent and embrace risk, the child needs a parent who is involved in the process but willing to give them opportunities based on the degree of responsibility they demonstrate. It's OK for a child to fall down and gets a few scrapes. Parents should appreciate their attempts," said Capaldi.
Leslie de Graaf, a mom and school counselor near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, teaches social emotional learning skills to students in kindergarten through eighth grades. And she also applies those lessons at home with her sons, ages 14 and 15.
"In my opinion, as it relates to the future and big picture, it's better to stand back a little as a keen observer and give kids breathing room so they feel like they can make their own decisions, become confident in their abilities and make steps toward independence," she said, "Not until they give me a reason do I have issues with tries."
She's discussed with them dangerous situations that can occur, including online. But though she knows the risks, she said, "I do not over-monitor my kids. … Not to mention issues may arise relating to rebelling."
She has a tracker feature on her phone for emergencies "but I give them their privacy and expect they are living by the values we have taught them."
Wood seeks balance, too, but when Sophie wants to visit a new friend at home, she does insist on meeting the parents. “I invite them over or go to their house and talk to them. I want to see the living situation and the way they interact with me. That’s how I decide how long she’s staying somewhere,” said Wood.
“Luckily, in Utah, we haven’t encountered really vast differences in values, even with people who are not religious, which we are.”
Wood knows better than most that life can be dangerous. Her sister Stacy was murdered 15 years ago by her ex-husband.
Still heartbroken, Wood nonetheless thinks most people are good. And she has faith that Sophie is, too. “She’s mature for her age, I think from being around my sister’s kids, who are older. I don’t hover. She’s responsible and does what she’s supposed to do. But I’m not far away, either,” Wood said.
Most states provide teenagers with a graduated driver license. A newbie driver starts out with an adult in the car, then graduates to driving alone only during certain hours. Communities may impose curfews or bans on having friends in the car until a novice has more proficiency.
Good parenting is also a process with steps, said Lisa Sugarman, parenting expert and author of the "It Is What It Is" humor column, who lives near Boston. Her daughters, now college age, earned the privilege of privacy, just as they earned the right to head to the mall with friends or get a part-time job.
The girls grew up amid clear expectations and limitations and were taught to respect boundaries. "If they did, they got more privileges. If they didn't, they lost some. It put them in charge of what happened in terms of action and consequence," Sugarman said.
"We always expected to know where our daughters were going and what they'd be doing and who they were going to be with, and we asked for a courtesy call when they got where they were going," she said. If they didn't call or stayed up too late or broke rules, "we hovered a little lower and restricted their privileges and invaded their privacy to make a point."
The result has been "super-open lines of communication, very little drama and a lot of trust," Sugarman said.
A child's age has a lot to do with how dependent they are; it takes time and practice to grow skills that lead to independence, said Capaldi.
Some kids have been so hovered-over and surveilled that they are less likely to try new things, whether social interaction or creative pursuit. Such a child will probably be an adult less comfortable seeking a raise or initiating projects because "initiative is all based on past accomplishments," he said.
Encinitas, California, mom Jesse Rutherford sometimes missed events at her kids' elementary school because of work. She felt bad about it but realized her kids had some advantages over those being "shadowed" by their parents.
So she became more deliberate in scaling her oversight efforts. She stopped dogging the middle school parent portal daily to make sure her daughter turned in assignments. "She is old enough to care about her grades and connect the dots between her actions on homework tonight and her grade in the class."3 comments on this story
Rutherford said she's chosen to let her children make messes when they start something new because nagging hampers creativity. "You can't tell (your kids) how to do every little thing, you can't manipulate things that should be creative choices and you can't harp on them about cleanup until they get a taste of the fun first."
Capaldi said parents who let kids try new things help them fill their life backpack with experience that's valuable, whether positive or negative. They become adults who are willing to take risks in all aspects of life. And that is likely to increase their opportunities.