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The Privacy Dance: Parents, Teens Find a Delicate Balance

May 05, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What did the killers' parents know, and when did they know it? If they knew nothing, why not?

These are among the questions being asked in the wake of the massacre in Littleton, Colo. Is it possible that Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, could have plotted mass murder for a year, stockpiled weapons and made bombs without raising parental suspicions?

"The complete obliviousness of these parents--that's a real puzzle," says clinical psychologist Cathleen Brown of Claremont. "There was kind of a disconnect, a neurological out-to-lunch."

It's a puzzle that begs further questions: Do teenagers today have too much privacy? What is parental snooping, and what is abdication of responsibility?

Child psychologist Robert R. Butterworth of Los Angeles doesn't mince words: "There are three things parents need now. One is a crowbar [for opening locked cabinets and closets], the second is a flashlight to look under the bed and the third is that little Internet guide you can buy that'll give you a clear indication of where the youngster's been."

Parents and teenagers in three families gave somewhat differing opinions on such matters as whether a teenager's room is out-of-bounds and how much parents need to know about their kids' friends. But all agreed that communication is key to keeping kids on the right path.

Questions about privacy and freedoms were posed to the Edmistons of Pacific Palisades (Joe, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy; Pepper, a homemaker; and William, a public school seventh-grader who turns 13 next week); the Glezers of West Hollywood (Philip, an administrator at Compton Community College; Carmella, a medical technician; Rochelle, 19, a college freshman; and her sister, Deborah, 17, a magnet school senior), and the Morrises of Baldwin Hills (Michael, a facilities engineer at Northrop-Grumman; Gay, a planner for the city of Compton; and Melanie Morris, 14, a private school eighth-grader). Parents and kids were questioned separately.

All the parents interviewed for this story were adamant on one point: Parents must talk, really talk to their kids--and listen.

How sacrosanct do you consider a teenager's room?

The Edmistons:

Pepper: "I knock."

Joe: "I don't knock. The rooms are pretty much open territory. Occasionally we've found William in his room with girls, once with the lights off." William said there was an innocent explanation, Joe recalls, "but we take no explanations as totally innocent."

Neither has ever searched William's room. Would they, if they suspected something? "Of course," says Joe, who goes in regularly to retrieve borrowed clothing. Pepper says she'd "feel pretty icky" about searching her son's room.

William says that "it's pretty annoying" to have them come into his room. "I wanted to get a lock for my door, mostly to lock it when I'm not there, but they said no." Do they snoop? "Not really." He'd be "pretty angry" if he thought they did. "My parents let me have girls over until 8:30, but I can't have the door closed."

The Morrises:

Michael: "We knock. If she's not in the room, the door's always open."

Gay: "We're free to go in any time. The closed door . . . I don't think we grew up that way."

Michael: "It would have been considered a signal that I was up to something."

Gay: "She does have a locked file cabinet, but we're kind of sure she'd open it if we asked her. If we did suspect some trouble, certainly" they wouldn't hesitate to search.

Melanie: "It's a fairly private place. As I do with them, they always knock, but they're free to come in. I have nothing to hide. I have candles in my room so they probably want to monitor a lot."

Were they to search her drawers, "I guess I'd want to do it to them just to get back."

The Glezers:

Philip: "When the girls are in their domain, they're in their domain," although their door is rarely closed.

Carmella: "They know they can close the door any time they want, but there's no door in this house that's ever been locked."

If he suspected something untoward, Philip says, "I'd come right out and say it," not sneak around.

Deborah: "My parents are more than welcome to go in my room. They've never just gone snooping." That would upset her. "I feel my parents should be able to talk to me about things."

Rochelle: "If they didn't trust me, I'd be upset."

Would you read your teenager's diary?

The Edmistons

Pepper: "I wouldn't.

Joe: "I wouldn't. I kept a diary [in high school and college], and I certainly wouldn't have wanted that read. It was a useful emotional outlet."

William: "I have this book. I like to write rap lyrics" (which his mother finds violent. Joe says this doesn't concern him: "Right now, hip hop is the youth cultural icon and the common language is something we never would have used when we were growing up, but the common language I used when growing up was not what my parents used.")

"To me," Joe says, "the issues are: Are they well-adjusted? Do they have a lot of friends? Or are they doing strange projects down deep in the basement?"

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