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Jewish World ReviewDec. 17, 1999 /8 Teves, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Teens have no inherent 'right to privacy' -- LIKE SO MANY OTHER AMERICANS, I was horrified by the contents of the video tapes the teenage Columbine killers secretly made before their murder spree last April, widely recounted for the first time and in gruesome detail in this week's cover story in Time magazine.

In one tape, after laying out the horrifying plans for the coming "Judgment Day" in Littleton, Colo., Eric Harris eerily tells his parents that "there's nothing you guys could've done to prevent this."

Of course, few people believe that, which is why, in the wake of the Columbine massacre and similar violence at other schools, many parents seem to be finally waking up to how much every teenager, even the most typical, desperately needs his parents to be in close touch with his life. Such newly cognizant parents may feel they face a big hurdle --- the notion that children, especially teenagers, have a "right to privacy."

It's one of the most dangerous yet prevalent beliefs our culture has about raising kids today. Elites insist on it, parents assume it, the law sometimes enshrines it. And kids are endangered by it.

When I was a teenager, the people I knew who were involved in drugs, sex or alcohol had parents who respected their "privacy rights." To put a more modern spin on it, only those children allowed "privacy rights" can get away with building pipe bombs and stockpiling weapons.

This privacy notion is a direct result of the widespread but destructive mindset that a child and his parents have equal but opposite interests. This not only leaves the child vulnerable, it makes a conflict between the generations inevitable.

Well, my husband and I are not big on "privacy rights" for the kids in our home. Our children are very young. But long before Columbine, we'd determined they would never have their own phone, television or computer in their room. They won't be allowed a password or other device to keep us from accessing their online activities. There will be no keeping a personal journal we can't read, and they won't have locks on their bedroom doors.

In fact, those doors will for the most part remain open. There will be no mysteriously withdrawing for hours on end, alone or with friends, behind closed doors in our home. A disengaged child will always be sought after and re-engaged, because today it should be clearer than ever that such a child is at risk.

No, their father and I aren't going to constantly listen in on their conversations, walk unannounced into rooms when they are entertaining friends or check diaries, e-mails and whereabouts. But there will always be the healthy understanding that we might, and that in any case we certainly have the right and sometimes even the responsibility to do so in order to serve and protect them.

Is it naive to think teenagers' lives can be such open books to their parents? It certainly would be if the teenagers were allowed to grow in the belief that they and their parents were on opposing "teams" with opposite goals --- the case in so many households today.

In contrast, though it may sound simplistic, we daily teach our children that we are all part of one winning "Team Hart" --- and that their dad and I are the captains. We believe the extent to which our children know we are all on the same "team," no matter what, is the extent to which the practice of their lives being open to us can really flourish --- even in the teenage years.

This means, for starters, instilling them even now with the knowledge that they are unconditionally loved and listened to by us like no one else on Earth, and that we have a responsibility for them like no one else on Earth, either.

So, for instance, they already know that if anyone ever says to them, "Let's not tell your parents," that person is trouble.

Especially if it's an adult, even a counselor, a doctor or a teacher (who may ostensibly be trying to protect their "privacy rights"), that person is trying to divide our "team." We hardly expect to get through our children's teenage years trouble-free.

But the fact is, if the lives of more teenagers were open to responsible, engaged parents, if there was less concern about their "privacy rights," more young people would be better equipped to happily and safely navigate their teenage years on the way to becoming men and women of character. And clearly, we'd have fewer infamous teenagers on the cover of national magazines.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Scripps Howard News Service