The thought of hiring a private detective in this age of relatively accessible electronic surveillance seems a bit retro, like a black-and-white scene from a smoky film noire. But it has been enjoying a surprising comeback in recent years, with parents who hire private investigators to spy on their children.
In an article titled Over-Parenting, my co-author Gaia Bernstein and I identified a trend of legal adoption of intensive parenting norms. We cautioned against society legally sanctioning a single parenting style – namely, intensive parenting – while deeming potentially neglectful other parenting styles which could be perfectly legitimate. We also pointed out that involved parenting is class-biased, since it is costly, and not all parents can afford the technology that would enable them to be intensive parents, such as purchasing GPS enabled smartphones for their kids. We argued that when intensive parenting is used for children who do not need it, it becomes over-parenting. Not all children need the same level of involvement in their lives; one of the most important roles of parents is to prepare their children for independent life, and over-parenting might thwart that role. Finally, we speculated that the cultural model for intensive parenting originates in media depictions of upper-middle class families, and that how these families are portrayed in movies and TV shows influences real-life parents.
Well, I’m sad to report that over-parenting is not a unique American phenomenon. Last year, for example, a Chinese newspaper reported that parents in china are increasingly becoming more involved in their children’s lives by hiring private investigators to check whether the children use drugs, drink alcohol or have sex. In Israel some parents are doing the same, especially during the long summer break, during which bored teenagers, many parent fear, are prone to engage in such activities (if you read Hebrew, you can read the story here). I am sure that some American parents do the same.
Leaving aside the class question (are parents who cannot afford a private eye neglectful?), what does this say about parents’ role as educators? Or about the level of trust (or distrust) between those parents and their children? It used to be that a spouse would hire a private investigator because they thought that their partner was having an affair. Nowadays, a growing chunk of a private investigator’s work involved parents spying on their children. Can’t we say that the fact that parents feel that they need to spy on their children already testifies to their limited parental skills?