Knowing Anyway and Requiring Open Confession
Some of the professional middle-class parents acknowledged that they know that they might be “naive” about what their children are up to; most of them quickly backed off from an open acknowledgment of ignorance, however, claiming that their relationship with their children builds on intimacy and daily communication. They thus see home drug testing, GPS tracking, and spyware as being unnecessary. They assume that the hovering they do—which
so that you remain aware of what it is that your children are doing. If Eve monitors closely (she admits she checks the odometer after her daughter has borrowed the car) and trusts her children in the interstices, she doesn’t need a GPS tracking system:
But I think that you have to have some level of trust, and if there’s a level of trust and it seems to be going okay and you’re watching your kids and you’re not not there, that you would pick up if there was something wrong or something askew, and then you would have to talk about it. But if we have her take a car, and she does what she says she’s going to do, . . . there’s no reason for me to track her.
Indeed, the parents suggest that going beyond these methods of keeping track (casual snooping, reliance on spies, checking the odometer) would make them confront and admit to their own intrusiveness.13 The commitment to “trust” while not being trusting is so unselfconscious that parents who engage in actions that might easily be read as violations of trust still maintain that they have a trusting relationship with their children.
Marian English stumbled over herself as she sought to explain the circumstances under which she read her daughter’s diary, while she insisted that she does not intrude into her daughter’s private life. Marian finds herself in an awkward position when she learns more from reading the diary than she wants to know—and especially more than she wants her husband to know.’4 Still, Marian makes a distinction between casual reading prompted by the diary’s being left open (monitoring) and purposeful reading prompted by her concern about her child’s well-being (Monitoring):
She does [keep a diary], and I read parts but not all. I would never tell her that. This is a hard area for me because you want to protect your kids, but you also want to protect their own privacy and ability to have their own lives; sometimes she would leave them out, and I would open to a page and read it. [But] if I thought there was something seriously wrong, if I thought she was going down a bad path, whether sexually, drugs, or that kind of thing, [then] I would probably find it and read it to find out what was going on. And in that case that is probably the only time I would justify doing it. The couple of times I found it and looked at a couple of pages
I felt guilty, and I never told her I did it. And I would never say to her, “I read this in your diary. When did you do that?” But if I thought she was in some kind of danger, I would find them and read them. [When I did read them it was because] they were just there, and she just leaves them out because she’s careless. And I was just cleaning her room one day, and there they were. And I read things that disturbed me, but I also didn’t think I could say [anything to] her. But they weren’t life threatening, and I didn’t want to break her trust. I didn’t want to lose her trust because of that— because there are other issues bigger than that that she still needs to be able to talk to me about. It wasn’t something I felt like was going to result in some kind of dangers. … I didn’t tell my husband because he would have probably gone berserk, freak out, ground her. . . . He does react differently.
We have different parenting styles.
Professional middle-class parents thus not only suggest that trust is brittle and a bit of a sham, but they incorporate a fair degree of “spying” into trusting relationships. At the same time, they prefer not to reveal their snooping because they believe doing so will challenge the two-way relationship of trust and result in their children’s not telling them things that, as Marian put it, her daughter “needs to” talk to her about. And the elite parents mostly do not choose to use those devices—a GPS tracking device, a keystroke reader, home drug testing—that could make that spying easier but would also make them acknowledge the spying they now do.
Few of the interviewed parents had ever used any of the new devices available for spying on their children. When asked about these devices, the parents imagined various situations they might face and then declared themselves willing—or unwilling—to deal with those situations through technological surveillance. These hypothetical responses are telling.
The professional middle-class parents adamantly rejected the devices that would enable them to spy on their children. They gave several different reasons for this response. The professional middle-class parents suggested that while the devices might be appropriate for other parents, they are unnecessary with their “good” children. As noted, it is likely that many of these parents are operating on the basis of a kind of denial: evidence shows that precisely these “good” kids are drinking, using drugs, and engaging in a wide range of
sexual activities of which their parents are unaware and of which they might not approve.’5 But as parents who believe they have established intimate communication and who believe that their children will confess misdeeds, they have no basis on which to openly doubt their childrens statements about what they are doing.
Moreover, the professional middle-class parents view these devices as violating some essential trust between parent and child. Yet it appears that parents and children may well have very different definitions of trust. For children, trust appears to be based on “essential” character and not incidental actions. For parents, the reverse is the case: trust builds on actions rather than character. Parental trust also operates as a toggle switch: parents trust their children until they don’t trust them; there is no in-between point. Moreover, it turns out that among the elite, parental trust hardly exists, despite the image parents want to present. Parents engage in a wide range of “sneaky” behaviors to ensure that their children are doing what they want them to do (and not doing what they don’t want them to do). But they appear reluctant to purchase a device that would force them to confront that sneakiness (and the ways they actually do violate trust); in this way they can maintain the illusion of a trusting relationship with their children. Yet this illusion requires that they be always alert and always available, since concealed spying takes more time and more subtlety than doing so out in the open. In their efforts to maintain this illusion parents, on occasion, act with questionable integrity.
When children break their parents’ trust, professional middle-class parents are not unwilling to use technological devices to spy. Of course, the evidence for broken trust is in the hands of the parents. Although parents talk initially as if they would have to see quite dramatic changes in a child’s behavior before instituting what one parent referred to as a “draconian measure,” it turns out that parents such as Beth O’Brien are willing to abandon trust for relatively moderate alterations in behavior. Indeed, several parents suggested they would adopt a mechanism for spying if they simply believed that their child’s academic status was in jeopardy.
In contrast to the subtle—but sharp—distinction made by professional middle-class parents between casual practices (such as reading a child’s diary) and practices that rely on technology (such as a keystroke monitoring system), working-class and middle-class parents make little distinction between spying through technology and spying without it.16 Because these parents have an
enthusiastic impulse toward surveillance (at least under certain conditions) and because they are more ambivalent altogether about trust, the means may be a less important consideration than the ends. If a diary is there, the working-class and middle-class parents might very well read it (especially if they have grounds for suspicion that not all is well); if they can find some other mechanism for accessing concealed information, they might use that instead (or as well). When these parents talk about surveillance devices such as the keystroke reader, the GPS tracker, and home drug testing, they are less interested in the possibility of stealth (spying) per se than they are in deterrence and in keeping their children safe. They believe that teens are not yet self- disciplined: as one parent said, “Kids are kids. You can’t just give the message that you’re trusting them. You just have to watch them at all times.” Eventually, they hope that discipline will be internalized; eventually they will be able to “trust” a young adult to act appropriately. During the teen years, however, these working-class and middle-class parents believe in maintaining an overt disciplinary gaze—both to induce self-control and to provide protection.