The Lonely Parent: Should Young Children Have Email Accounts?

Preschool is three days a week for two hours and fifteen minutes, but for some parents, that is too much time away from their children. Thanks to the advances of modern technology the teachers send home email updates with pictures of what goes on during the day. It seemed cute at first, like a nice way to start a conversation with your two-year-old about their day. “Did you paint pictures today?”

But then parents started to demand more and more. Why are there so many pictures of that child and not enough of mine? Why isn’t my child smiling in the photos? Why aren’t there more photos? Now it’s beginning to look more like surveillance.

I understand the sentiment. Preschool is the first time that our children are really experiencing the world without mom and dad. They make friends. They start to have conversations with other children we don’t know. They form a relationship with their teachers that we only get to hear about after the fact. Some people (including the man I married) laugh at the idea of parent-teacher conferences for two-year-olds, but other parents hope to get a peek behind the door that closes when we drop our children off each morning.

But how much of a peek should we be sneaking? The question has come up again because my older children, ages 6 and 8, now have email accounts. They don’t have the addresses of many people besides their grandparents and a couple of close friends. And almost no one has their addresses either. But I do wonder whether I should be reading their outgoing emails before they’re sent or the incoming ones before they’re read. Should I be cc’d on all their correspondence?

For what it’s worth, their email activity seems like relatively harmless screen time. They are for all intents and purposes just spending a few minutes each evening writing letters to other people, keeping up with school friends over the summer, etc. But just like the rest of the Internet, email is a backdoor into our home. Even after controlling whom they are corresponding with, it still makes me a little nervous. It’s not Facebook, but what if some other child starts sending mine bullying messages? Or sending them the kind of content I don’t want them seeing?

In fact, it turns out the emails I worry most about are the ones the kids send to me. Once I got over laughing about the fact that we’re sitting next to each other at the table sending emails instead of speaking, it became clear that email correspondence could fundamentally change the nature of my relationship with my children.

Communicating with email is qualitatively different from speaking. My children ask me for things they might not otherwise because email emboldens them. Can I get my nails done? Can I get my ears pierced? Can I get a new Star Wars Lego set? They don’t have to see the look on my face—most likely my eye rolling—when I say no. They think: What’s the worst thing that could happen? Mom will write back, “No.”  Maybe in ALL CAPS. But even that is unlikely to intimidate them. Of course, what they don’t know is that I also find it easier to say no by email than when I’m looking at their crestfallen faces.

A guilt trip delivered via email is particularly effective. Who among us doesn’t prefer to raise touchy subjects in writing rather than in some kind of face-to-face emotional confrontation? Because we don’t have to see the other person’s reaction, email is liberating.

There are other upsides to email.  In a busy household where time alone with each child can be hard to find on some nights, email ensures that the lines of communication remain open. And no one ever has to ask, “Can I talk to you?”

But it’s important to remember that email initiates a different kind of conversation. It was much easier than I thought for even a few minutes of email with my kids to become a substitute for face-to-face conversation.  And yet it’s a useful life skill to be able to look someone in the eye and say, “Can I talk to you?”

So here’s the question this week: Do your kids have email? If so, how do you make sure that the important conversations are still happening in person? Send your responses to:  [email protected]

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  • I don’t have kids, but when the internet was still relatively new to the public (1993-94-ish), my dad did let my sister and I have email addresses (AOL), and he closely monitored what we did (Mostly found pen pals. I had a pen pal from Boston, and I frequently wonder what happened to her). It was very limited back then, though. There’s so much online that kids could get into, though, and potentially get into trouble. I’d be loathe to give my children any kind of electronic, but since I don’t have kids, that could change when they’re actually here. Tough call.