The day after my 17-year-old daughter left on a two-week holiday, I got into her room and did a huge spring-clean. I filled two black garbage bags with the most appalling array of junk: endless boxes filled with dry kokis, old orange peels, random scraps of paper and the like; no-longer-wearable clothes that I found stuffed behind cupboards; and piles of old school exercise books, some dating back years. I also reorganised her space, stacking books properly in shelves, marshalling her CDs, clearing one drawer for makeup and another for jewellery and accessories, and so on.
When my 18-year-old son got back from school I was standing back, admiring the pristine space that a few sweaty hours before could easily have been mistaken for a junkshop.
He looked critically around his sister’s room, looked at me, and said, ‘You’d better never do this to my room. It’s a total breach of privacy.’
I was shattered. I hadn’t for a minute considered that aspect of what I’d done.
Since my kids were in their early teens, their rooms have been sacrosanct. Of course I’ve gone into them, to change linen and dump clean clothes, etc, but I’ve certainly never snooped. In fact, last year, when my daughter went through a really difficult patch, and the psychologist I consulted advised me to confiscate her cellphone and go through its records to find out who and what she’d been accessing, it went so badly against the grain that I almost couldn’t do it. (And although I did, and found some hair-raising but vital information, I still feel awful about it.)
Although I didn’t, obviously, go into any of my daughter’s private stuff while I was cleaning up, my son’s comment stayed with me. How much privacy, exactly, should we allow our children? If, like the mother of Krugersdorp schoolboy Morne Harmse, who allegedly killed a fellow pupil by slashing open his throat with a Ninja sword, we never enter their private space, will we, like her, one day tragically discover that there were clues there that may have averted a catastrophe?
On the other hand, if we poke around in our children’s personal affairs, how are we to teach them to respect others’ privacy?