Is it okay to read my child's diary?

Q: Is it ok to read my nine-year old's diary? I certainly think so since I want to know if there is something in there that a parent should know.

A: This is a sticky question, and I'm not going to be able to give you a hard and fast answer. But I can give you my opinion, and some things to consider as you make your own decision.

I myself have a journal. It is private. I pour my heart and soul into it BECAUSE it is private. I write my innermost thoughts -- things I would never say to anyone else, partly because I know they are BS in the light of day, and partly because I like having an internal life that does not intersect with reality. It would be a tremendous betrayal if someone read it without my consent.

Since I'm a huge advocate of integrity, which I personally define as congruence between my values and my behavior, I would not read my child's diary.

That being said, I have also tried to create the type of relationship with my children that allows them to tell me anything. If I suspected they were suicidal, doing drugs, having sex, or some other worrisome behavior that parents might feel compelled to verify via reading a diary, I would start by just bringing it up in conversation.

I think it is absolutely critical for some kids to have a place to dump their feelings without consequence. Your daughter may or may not be one of those kids. If she is, and you violate that safe place, then in my opinion, you have done more harm than good.

What will you do if you read something alarming in there? Will you tell her how you found out? Do you have reason to suspect that she is harboring serious problems that only show up in her diary and nowhere else in her life? Are you certain you can tell the difference between momentary expressions of emotion and true problems that require intervention? When you were nine, how would you have felt if your parents read your diary?

I know a teenager whose parents read her journal. They read right through the periodic admonishments she had inserted asking them to stop reading and respect her privacy.

She told me, "If they were so worried about me, why didn't they just talk to me? Ask me how I was doing? Pay attention to my life? What did they really think I was hiding from them?" She was a good kid - no drugs, no sex, no trouble -- who had found in journaling what seemed like an appropriate outlet for her strong feelings. She worked them through in private. They were never meant to see the light of day.

She felt angry, betrayed, and violated when they confronted her with the thoughts and feelings she had written. It was very painful for all of them, and their violation of her privacy was the last straw for their tenuous relationship. She ended up leaving their care to live with her other parent (they were divorced).

The fact that you asked me this question suggests you have a niggling doubt. I think it would be good to pay attention to that. It's important for parents to be actively engaged in their child's life. Listen to your daughter. Spend time with her. Pay attention to her. Invite her friends over to play. There are lots of above ground ways to keep tabs on your child. It's not necessary to read her diary.

When I am making a parenting decision such as this, I look to my personal North Star to keep me on course: Children learn what they live.

That being said, I'll issue the same disclaimer that accompanies all my advice. Nothing I say should supercede parental intuition. If you have a strong gut feeling that tells you to read your child's diary, honor it. Just don't do it casually, or kid yourself that it's your right. Be willing to accept the consequences of your decision to invade your child's privacy this way. Make sure there are truly no other alternatives. And make sure you have given careful consideration to what you will do with the information you learn there.

If you'd like some assistance with parenting decisions such as this, let's schedule a parenting consultation by phone. For more information, visit

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