- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Q. My husband read the composition book our 7-year-old daughter had been using as a diary. He became upset at some of the things she had written — loving a boy, wishing her sister had died (she was a very ill preemie), hating life without her cousin around, and several curse words written in isolation.

My response was that her private thoughts at this age don’t really mean anything and that she was just exploring her feelings, but he thinks I should confront her and talk about these issues. What is the right thing to do here?

A. To begin with, parents should not read a child’s private diary unless a sudden change in the child’s behavior strongly suggests something is seriously amiss, the child isn’t communicating, and the diary may hold a clue as to the nature of the problem. Otherwise, a child’s diary should be the one place where she can just “let it rip” without fear of censure. The same rule of thumb applies to a child’s room.

Lest I be misunderstood, children do not enjoy a right to privacy. Their privacy is a privilege that can be suspended at parental discretion, but said discretion should not be exercised arbitrarily, as did your husband. If what he found confirmed and clarified already existing concerns, his snooping would be justified, but that’s not the case. Let’s face it, we all harbor thoughts and feelings we keep under wraps. For a child, or an adult for that matter, a diary becomes a functional way of keeping anti-social impulses under control.

There may come a time when you will have sufficient cause to search your daughter’s room and read her diary and/or her e-mail. If you confront your daughter about her diary, she is only going to become more secretive, which may prevent you from discovering what you need to discover when the time comes.

I often use the generic term “Grandma” to refer to the sage parent of old. Had you asked Grandma for her advice in this situation, she probably would have said, “Leave well enough alone.” In other words, if a child’s “big picture” is acceptable, then it’s generally best to ignore the inevitable little glitches. (You can make yourself fairly crazy if you don’t.)

If your daughter is not showing outward signs of emotional distress, she’s respectful and obedient, her social life is reasonably good, she does well in school and is liked by her teachers, then I strongly would encourage you and your husband to take Grandma’s advice and “leave well enough alone.”

In other words, I agree with you that what your daughter wrote in her diary, in isolation, is not something that warrants intervention. Keep a sharp eye open for signs of problems, but you should be doing that anyway.

* Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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