Parents And Child Privacy
Similarly to relational partners, if boundary issues are not resolved between family members, discontent can occur within the family, particularly between the privacy demands of children and parents. Not only can the boundary regulation of the family and others outside of the family be difficult to attempt to manage, but also the management within can be disappointing if the boundary rules are not negotiated. Consider the privacy dilemma that often occurs about a child's bedroom. Prior research has shown that children allow parents wide latitude in encroaching on their personal space and invading their privacy (Burgoon et al. 1989). Nevertheless, when children feel that their parents have stepped over that line, violating their privacy boundaries, they react negatively. The children feel a need to have some control over possessions, space, and private information.
To avoid this dilemma, the parents and children need to negotiate exactly when the parents might enter the room, granting the children the ability to control the space. Continuous violations of personal space could eventually result in defense actions on the part of the child (Petronio 1994). Privacy issues are particularly salient for adolescents (Youniss and Smollar 1985). The children's claim of privacy rights tends to mark their need to separate from the parents. As they grow older, children declare the right to more privacy and control over their personal information, space, and possessions. When parents do not allow them jurisdiction over these things, it interferes with the child's ability to become a mature adult (Youniss and Smollar 1985).
This issue often becomes salient when adult children, who have gone away to college, return home to face issues of boundary management with their parents. In the first of four studies, Sandra Petronio (1994) uncovered a number of ways parents invade the privacy boundaries of their college-age children (mean age was nineteen years old). For example, the parents often violate the privacy of their adult children by entering bedrooms without knocking, attempting to overhear telephone conversations, asking personal questions, opening personal mail, infringing on personal time, giving unsolicited advice, and going through personal possessions.
These invasions within the home create a dilemma for the children. As a result, they react with protective strategies. For example, to manage their privacy, they tend to lock or close doors when in their parents' home, make calls away from home, hide personal items, confront their parents with violations, refuse to disclose personal information, express disappointment in parents, and meet friends outside of the home (Petronio 1994).
Within families, issues of privacy extend far beyond invasions of college children. Entire families can experience privacy boundary predicaments, such as when private information about one or more family members is exposed. The family member who learns this information is caught in a predicament that forces him or her to decide whether to maintain the existing boundaries around the information or breach confidences. For example, while cleaning the garage, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore comes across a series of love letters less than a year old addressed to his mother from a man who is neither his father nor married to his mother. The son is forced to grapple with the issue of concealing or revealing this private information to the other family members. He has possession of the information without the knowledge of his mother. He, alone, has to decide the way he is going to manage the boundary around this information.
Faced with the dilemma of two equally unsatisfying alternatives, such as above, the family member usually must juxtapose the desire to maintain the boundary with what she or he believes is the most appropriate course of action, which may be to disclose to others within or outside the family. In either event, one choice will be good for the family member whereas the other will not. In weighing their decisions to break the boundary, family members often consider the consequences of their revealing.
However, managing family boundaries around private information is often not a sole family member's responsibility. Because family members often serve as confidants for each other, the way they manage the co-ownership of disclosed information matters to their ongoing family relationships. When family members are told about a private problem, there is a certain responsibility for the information told. For example, a sibling tells her sister she thinks she might be pregnant. Since being able to disclose high stress information is beneficial to one's health, knowing that her sister will treat the information with respect is critical (Pennebaker 1990).
At times, only a few family members will coown information. When family members share information with only one other member, a dyadic boundary is formed. On this level, the two family members co-own the information and establish coordinated rules as to the protection of or the access to the information by others. For example, a mother and daughter may protect the boundary around the fact that the mother has a secret checking account separate from her husband. Both mother and daughter establish boundary rules as to how to protect this private information from others in the family. As a result, the target of a disclosure, even among family members, can significantly influence the way people reveal and conceal certain information (Tardy, Hosman, and Bradac 1981). Interestingly, the most frequently selected confidant in families is the mother (Derlega et al. 1993). Fathers are chosen less often than mothers, either because they are less accessible or form a different type of relationship with their children.
The same process takes place when the entire family owns the information; all members are expected to take responsibility for managing the boundaries around access to and protection of the information. The maintenance of privacy is critical to the functioning of the family members. This is seen in the way families may place a boundary around the private information that one of the children is gay. When protection is working, all family members are expected to share in guarding this information from others outside of the family. However, if one member decides to disclose this to an outsider, others in the family may punish him or her by refusing to talk or through open confrontation about breaking the family rule.