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London - One night last summer, a friend was startled to be woken by a text, obviously sent in error, from her 14-year-old daughter. ‘Hey Jack! Meet me in the garden now for chocolate cake?’ it asked.
She hastily woke her bemused husband and for several minutes they lay in bed pondering their options.
Their first worry was: who on earth was Jack? Could he be some ghastly paedophile who’d been grooming her via a chatroom? Or a secret - perhaps dangerously unsuitable - boyfriend? And could ‘chocolate cake’ be code for drugs?
After much debate, they decided to try to go back to sleep. After all, they reasoned, their daughter was well aware of the dangers of ‘grooming’ and internet chat rooms. She was also sensible, mature and trustworthy. They would give her the benefit of the doubt.
By choosing not to confront her, my friend nurtured rather than destroyed a delicate strand of trust. And, sure enough, that paid dividends a few months later.
At a birthday party, one of her daughter’s friends had become blind drunk, yet no one wanted to call her mother - a woman known to be both neurotic and draconian. Instead, they phoned my friend to ask for her help. In other words, the bond of trust between mother and daughter had made the girls feel they could turn to her when one of them was in trouble.
But what if my friend had stormed into her daughter’s room that night? Or worse still, what if she’d regularly snooped on her teenager’s emails and texts?
The truth is that not only would their relationship have suffered, but the girl herself might well have become either fearful and lacking in confidence, or determined to rebel whatever the consequences. Either way, children who know they’re not trusted tend to unravel the minute they’re let off the leash.
That, in a nutshell, is why I feel Tory MP Claire Perry is entirely wrong to suggest parents should snoop on their children’s text messages and internet exchanges. She’s been a vigorous campaigner for the automatic blocking of online porn (a campaign I wholeheartedly endorse).
As the child psychologist Steve Biddulph - whose powerful new book about girls has just been serialised in the Mail - and the socialist MP Diane Abbott pointed out this week, online porn is perverting our children’s view of sex.
‘Sexting’ - sending intimate images via text - has now become a commonplace childhood activity.
Watching online porn conditions girls to sleep with boys they don’t like, before they’re ready, while boys are brainwashed into thinking that violent or unusual sex is normal.
Not only that, but there’s also the ever-present threat of predatory paedophiles, who roam internet chat rooms posing as teenagers and looking for vulnerable children they can ‘groom’.
Acting like the secret police, however, is never the best way to protect a child. If our sons and daughters are to stand any chance at all of negotiating their way safely through their teenage years, with all its attendant perils - not just social media and internet porn but also cyber bullying, alcohol and drugs - the first priority must be for them to trust us.
When something frightens them, when they feel overwhelmed, confused or unable to cope, it’s crucial that they feel able to confide in us. We hardly encourage them to do that if we insist on reading their digital messages - a violation equivalent to our own mothers reading our angst-filled teenage diaries.
Of course, you’d have to be a saint not to give in to temptation should they be careless enough to leave a text message on screen for all to see.
It’s also undeniable that if you genuinely sense your child may be in danger, you must take whatever action you feel necessary. But anything else is snooping - and it won’t easily be forgiven.
So before you give into temptation - or Claire Perry’s strictures - let me tell you what actually happened on the night of the chocolate cake text.
Before she went back to sleep that night, my friend allowed herself a stealthy peep at the moonlit garden. Her daughter was sitting on the kitchen steps with an awkward looking 14-year-old boy, still in his school uniform. They were about two feet apart. And they were eating chocolate cake. - Daily Mail