Dear David Coleman: 'I secretly monitor my 19-year-old son's email'
David Coleman answers your parenting questions
Q: Each of my sons got phones when they were 11 years old. I also set-up email accounts for them. However, unknown to them, I set-up an auto-forwarding of their emails to my email for monitoring purposes with the intention that it would be easy to disable when they reached around 15 or 16. My oldest boy is now 19 and in college and the auto-forward is still in place. I really want to disable this forwarding rule without him knowing as I left it too long and I genuinely don't like it now. However, I no longer know his password and so can't disable it without telling him. What should I do?
A: I think you need to tell him, up-front, about your betrayal of his trust. What you did may have been done in good faith, as a means of protecting him, but you took advantage of his inexperience and naivety when he was 11. While I have no issue with parents choosing to monitor their children's online experiences when they first get access to the internet, I believe we must do it with their knowledge.
If we don't inform them, then we continue to deceive them. The moment when we have to admit to our deceit we break their trust in us. When the deceit is set-up, as in your situation, to monitor their behaviour, it is inevitable that we will, at some point, have to admit to our covert supervision of them, since they are almost bound to make mistakes of the kind that we will want to address with them.
For example, had he been using his email to communicate with someone about buying drugs, or arranging to meet someone that you suspected of grooming him for sexual purposes, you would have had to intervene for his safety. In those circumstances you would have been in the exact same situation of having to admit that you were secretly monitoring him. While there is a benefit in protecting them from harm, it will have come at the huge cost of trust.
I think it is interesting that you chose not to disable this auto-forwarding rule when he was 15 as had been your intention. Why not? I can only assume that you felt it was either important, or fascinating, to continue to have insight into his life?
Your actions over the last eight years have been those of a voyeur. While you may have felt you were doing no harm (indeed you were able to justify your spying on him on the basis that it was about "minding" him), you have actually been undermining his developing independence and autonomy. You have been denying him his right to privacy. How can you, for example, ever hope to have taught him about trust, honesty and consent, when your behaviour has modelled the opposite of this?
Now that you have decided to disable the monitoring, you have an opportunity to repair these breaches of trust, honesty and consent. But only if you are completely upfront with him and explain, in full, what you have done.
I could imagine he may be shocked, distressed, hurt and feel betrayed by you. While these will be complicated and powerful emotions that may take some time to process, you will, at the least, be showing him another important value, the value of taking responsibility (including accepting the natural consequences) for making mistakes. If he is angry, upset, or offended with you, then so be it. Those are the consequences that you must accept for deceiving him for all these years. With luck, you have a good enough relationship with him that you will still be able to talk about this, so he may be able to get to the point of forgiving you in time.