Sunday, June 24, 2012

An only modestly outrageous proposal UPDATED

WWPD's legislative branch proposes the following: a law that would restrict what parents can write online or publish about their own children. (See Item 2 of this post for links.) Not as outrageous as it sounds. Hear me out, and try your best (ahem, PG) to set aside that this law would never ever ever happen:

As it stands, speech is not entirely free, and is restricted if it causes undue harm. We already have a category called "libel." And a parent's criticisms of a child, offered not to the child, not in private commiseration with fellow parents, but to the broader reading public, really should count as such.

We already restrict a great deal of what can be said online or in print about young kids. The very young themselves are not, in principle, allowed unfettered access to the Internet, and tend not to publish books or articles, even if no law prevents them from doing so. Their teachers will (or should) be fired if they go online to rant about Jimmy, a student in their seventh-grade English class, and how he was raised by wolves. These kinds of speech are not, I believe, protected.

But when the parents are the authors, it's different. Why?

For one thing, we assume that we're reading an essay not about Jimmy and his C average, but about the trials and travails of parenting a child who's not Yale-bound. We think that there's a value in parents sharing their experiences, and that there's no way for this to be done authentically without referring back to those specific experiences with specific, readily-identifiable children. We believe that it's brave for Jimmy's dad to have told his story, as if the story were purely his to tell. We think Jimmy's dad is doing this great service, one only he could provide. And we assume goodwill. He loves Jimmy, after all. Plus, Jimmy reflects on him. What's his incentive to paint Jimmy in a negative light?

Children, who are in a position of near-powerlessness regardless, are in a particularly great one with respect to their own parents. Let's say your father writes an essay for the Washington Post about what a dimwit you are, but using a tone intended to make him come across as a really wonderful parent who's done everything. What's your recourse? You're not guaranteed to grow up to be someone with a platform on that scale, and at any rate it'll be years until you've grown up, period. And these people provide the roof over your head and so much more. Parents are meant to be a buffer between their children and the wide world of people who do not love them unconditionally, who don't think they're brilliant and beautiful, even if they're not. By putting their children's lives on display, in particular their moments of weakness, they're failing their kids. Ironic, considering that we're meant to believe the parents with an exceptionally strong interest in "parenting" are the ones producing this genre.

We assume that adults have thick enough skin that they might be publicly mentioned in some unflattering way without being utterly shattered by the experience. But the bar is far lower when it comes to children, who can feel shamed and humiliated so much more easily, especially by their own parents. Your kid did something embarrassing? In the fiefdom of WWPD, you'd have to keep it to yourself.

UPDATE

Yet another reason parents shouldn't be allowed to write about their kids: Parents can (and often do) look at everything their kids do online, including messages they send and imagine to be private. So we have to assume that parents know not only embarrassing things about their kids that their kids know they know ('remember the time I had to come pick you up from school because your menstrual cramps were so bad?'), but also things the kids have every good reason to think are secret. A father might know that his son was rejected by a girl, because he's reading the kid's texts. He might think, 'Aha, a wonderful opportunity to share what it's like to parent a child going through his first romantic rejection.' And because we (for some reason) accept that it's OK both for him to be following his kids' texts in the first place, and to write articles about his 'parenting,' we see no reason why he can't 'write what he knows' in this situation.

15 comments:

caryatis said...

But wouldn't that mean banning all writing about personal experience of parenting? Because any honest discussion of parenting means talking about parenting problems, i.e. admitting your kid is not perfect. Seems like a high price to pay to tell people not to write about what is a large part of life for most.

Phoebe said...

"But wouldn't that mean banning all writing about personal experience of parenting?"

Yes, just about. At least as long as the children in question are still children. As I mention, though, there are ways to tell these stories in real time without humiliating specific children.

Just to be clear: do not agree that this writing, this "admitting your kid is not perfect," would be incredibly damaging to the kid in question? A parent is making a certain sacrifice in admitting he's raising an imperfect child, but the person whose life is really being put on display is the kid, who has no say in the matter. We discuss 'the parenting memoir' as if it were merely a personal confessional, and not a violation of the privacy of the children whose stories are being told.

"Seems like a high price to pay to tell people not to write about what is a large part of life for most."

Work is also "a large part of life for most," but we seem relatively untroubled by the limitations in place that keep people from holding forth candidly about readily-identifiable people with/for whom they work. (Also: doctors and patients, teachers and students, lawyers and clients, etc.) Barring cases of libel and specific professional ethics codes, we don't need laws against telling people not to badmouth their bosses/colleagues in print, because there are obvious real-world repercussions to doing so. With children, however, that's not the case. You can print essay upon essay about your daughter's weight problem, your son's hopelessness at sports, without repercussion. Thus the need for a law.

If this helps, by "a law," what I mean realistically is a much, much higher self-imposed threshold for this type of writing. But I'm not so sure an actual law wouldn't be a bad idea.

Phoebe said...

*do you not agree

caryatis said...

I agree in principle, but...the creative urge is a powerful one. Or the urge to babble about one’s own selfish concerns. If I had children, I’m not sure I would be able to resist writing about them for 18 years.

Maybe I missed your “ways to tell these stories in real time without humiliating specific children.” You mean writing anonymously or pretending you’re writing about someone else’s child?

And isn’t public criticism of adults the same thing--different not in kind, but perhaps in the degree of harm caused? Why *should* I be able to write a memoir detailing my parents’ abuse or the dissolution of my marriage? Unless they can get a book contract, the adults involved are not going to be able to respond in such a highly-publicized form. I mean, banning speech because it embarrasses people is a slippery slope.

Kind of irrelevant but: did you see the Motherlode post by the father who wondered how to tell his 12-year-old daughter that she was fat -- because he thought she didn’t know?

Phoebe said...

Re: the urge to spill - if we can resist this when it comes to bosses/patients/students/co-workers, we can do the same when it comes to children.

Re: how to avoid naming names - I list options in the post, but what I mean is either writing fiction or writing an article about parenting in which names are changed, and in which it's unclear when, if ever, it's your own kids you're discussing.

Re: the difference between discussing kids and discussing adults, I also addressed this in the post. But to clarify, there's a hierarchy when it comes to who's OK to discuss: public figures, quasi-public-figures, adults, children. Children are significantly more easily humiliated, even if the "criticism" is slight. Simply being mentioned could humiliate a child, but probably not an adult. And there's an expectation that their parents are their to protect them from this sort of thing, not to instigate it.

"Why *should* I be able to write a memoir detailing my parents’ abuse or the dissolution of my marriage?"

This gets us into a different question, namely why people with the bridge-burning impulse can't just write fiction. More fiction, less confessional! And I think good taste should hold us back from writing gratuitously nasty things about our families, and that libel laws most likely already cover those who write abuse memoirs that include false accusations. But because we intuitively understand that adults have recourse, even if some have more of it than others, we naturally restrain what we write about other adults, and use a higher bar for deciding when to share. Conversely, we get that children are powerless, so the bar is much lower for discussing a 12-year-old's weight problem than a 42-year-old's. If anything, the reverse should be true.

caryatis said...

You make some good points. A law would set a dangerous precedent, but I see the case for discouraging writing about children.

This is irrelevant but you might find this interview interesting. In a nutshell, relationships are difficult because women are focused on motherhood and their biological clocks, while men have more choices and are in less of a hurry. The solution is to get rid of fatherhood. “Women could organize themselves with other women and men to raise children in communities and dissociate that from the search for a man.”

www.salon.com/2012/06/24/our_new_era_of_hearbreak/singleton/

PG said...

In the U.S., pure opinion (my daughter is fat) is not libelous and truth (he says she's 5 feet and 150 lbs.; she is) is an absolute defense to a libel claim, so I don't think your idea would work as a law, but it's certainly a good social norm, as is a general trend against confessional writing and substituting fiction for that.

I think it's important for stories about what really happens to people -- being a bad parent, being a victim of abuse, parenting a kid who's a diagnosed psychopath -- to be available so other people don't feel like they're alone in these struggles. But I think fiction written under pseudonyms suffices for these purposes.

Your proposal might be more easily enacted as law in countries without a strong First Amendment, e.g. the UK.

Phoebe said...

PG,

What, if not a law, could bring about this change in social norms? What we're facing isn't merely a default in which it's socially acceptable to write about your kids' woes. It's considered brave and wonderful to do so.

"But I think fiction written under pseudonyms suffices for these purposes."

It wouldn't even have to be outright fiction. It could be, as with the psychopath piece, reporting. The author could tell the first-person story, but also interview other families, change names and key details, and make it ambiguous what did involve their own specific kid.

(Re: the legal specifics, Isn't there also something else where even if it's true, it's not OK? Defamation? Wouldn't it be possible for the law to distinguish between speech about adults and speech about children? What if the father calls the daughter fat, but she isn't fat? What if he says she's neurotic about her weight, which would be tough to prove or disprove?)

PG said...

Libel is a form of defamation. It is written defamation; slander is spoken defamation.

You may be thinking of invasion of privacy, which is a claim you can make in a lawsuit even if everything said/written about you was true. E.g. if you set up a long-range lens to photograph me in the shower, so that you never trespass onto my property, and put those photos online, I can't sue you for trespass nor for defamation (that's what I look like), but I may have a claim for invasion of privacy. Similarly, if I leave my journal on the bus and you post it online -- no defamation because no untruth, but possibly invasion of privacy.

I don't know of any such cases being brought against one's parents. I'm mostly familiar with these torts from journalism, where as with defamation it's harder for a public figure to prove a claim. So if the kid is famous for some reason, it would be difficult to win an invasion of privacy case. However, if the kid was heretofore unknown to the public, then the claim that his status as a private person was invaded is much more plausible.

And presumably the children's privacy is really what you're concerned about -- not the truthfulness of the statements about them. I do not remember how the statute of limitations gets extended for minors in such torts, so I don't know if it's possible for someone whose privacy was invaded at 6 to sue at 18. (In most states the deadline to sue, for an adult, will be within a few years of discovering the invasion.)

Aside from such litigation, you still couldn't have a law preemptively barring such invasive speech because of the First Amendment. You can penalize bad speech after the fact, but you almost never can prevent its occurrence.

The norm might be enforceable through the means of publication. While the internet has made it possible for everyone to "publish," in some form, if enough large publishers (book publishers, magazines, newspapers, blogging platforms, etc.) refused to allow privacy-invading publications, it would minimize the impact of the invasion.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"And presumably the children's privacy is really what you're concerned about -- not the truthfulness of the statements about them."

Indeed. It seems unlikely that parents are altogether inventing their own kids' embarrassing moments. Far more likely that this is a topic they're writing about because it's material that they didn't have to be creative to come up with.

"You can penalize bad speech after the fact, but you almost never can prevent its occurrence."

Right! This much I do remember from whichever law-for-undergrads classes.

"if enough large publishers (book publishers, magazines, newspapers, blogging platforms, etc.) refused to allow privacy-invading publications, it would minimize the impact of the invasion."

Yes, but there'd need to be an impetus. Somehow I think 'a post on WWPD' doesn't count. As it stands, your chances of getting a book deal or high-profile article are that much greater if you promise a tell-all about your own kids.

PG said...

Well, if we were a people horrified by such disclosures such that no one would buy/read/FB share suck publications, the profit-minded publishers wouldn't continue to publish them. I don't know if such a people still exists on earth, but they don't in America.

For whatever reason, thinking one knows about a specific other person or group of people creates a greater titillation or something than the fictionalized or pseudonymed or aggregated alternatives. Isn't that why some writers pretend to be writing memoirs when they are actually writing fiction or the aggregated stories of other people? There's something about this in Dave Eggers's first memoir (which I guess would violate your rules, since it's largely about parenting his little brother after their parents die), maybe in the foreword, where he says something like "Do you think you have power over me because I tell you about myself? Do you think you can really know me if you know something like my masturbation habits? (Sometimes twice a day, usually in the show.)"

I think the only thing that might be new is seeing stories of fairly average people (whether biography or autobiography) as literary. Boswell's "Life of Johnson" was sort of an instant classic; and "Confessions of a..." is an old lowbrow genre. We're now willing to consider that a memoir about a non-famous woman's affair with her own father can be something other than a guilty pleasure.

PG said...

*Such publications, though the typo works as well.

Phoebe said...

PG,

We're not horrified by these disclosures because we're thinking of them in terms of the parents telling about their "parenting," and not about the parents discussing their kids. If anything, our reaction will be to judge the kids - we are, after all, reading criticisms of them, and these criticisms aren't tempered by the love one has for ones own kids.

I suppose for change to occur, it would help to first hear from the adult children who'd been written about. But this might not work, both because humiliation at 14 might be a distant memory at 34, and because your parents continue to be your parents later in life, and not everyone will start to cause a very public scene over something from years prior.

PG said...

There's at least a popular fictional example from the child's perspective of humiliation about having been written about: Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory" had his childhood documented as "Needy Baby, Greedy Baby" by his mother. And that would seem more justifiable since it was done in the name of science, yet the show clearly sets it up as yet another instance of his mother's being a terrible parent.

But I think we're generally not horrified by the disclosures parents make about their kids, simply because we're not prone to being horrified by any disclosure now. I think it would be more obviously problematic to us in cases where the disclosure relates to something we believe should always be private, such as sexuality. So someone who wrote about the difficulties of parenting a chronic masturbator probably would cause more horror, because we have a bias of thinking sexual matters should be private. But that's something most people wouldn't want to hear about even from an acquaintance, much less a total stranger on "Motherlode."

In areas where we don't have that bias -- I don't think we have a general norm of thinking kids' skills at piano and violin, for example, ought to be private -- then I think the assumption that no real harm is being done. We've broken down the old lines that separated what a parent would tell his/her friends while commiserating at a soccer game, from what is acceptable to tell the general public.

And while it's always a bit stinging to overhear one's shortcomings, I don't think it's wrong for parents to discuss their difficulties amongst themselves in a private setting. (1) The child may never know the discussion was had; and (2) parents are also humans who need sympathy.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"And while it's always a bit stinging to overhear one's shortcomings, I don't think it's wrong for parents to discuss their difficulties amongst themselves in a private setting."

Of course that's fine! I think I've been quite clear that I'm referring to public, especially published information, not suggesting that parents can't complain about parenting amongst themselves, just as kids, amongst themselves, complain about their parents. Of course they can! Why on earth not?

Re: what we do and don't consider OK, there's a great big middle ground between sexual proclivities and piano lessons. Weight, for example. Also academic performance. If your kid is a mediocre student, but you went to Harvard, however much it already sucks for the kid to not live up to those expectations, publishing an account of how tough it is for the parent to reconcile himself to this isn't going to help. If your kid is significantly overweight, your kid probably knows this, and won't feel better knowing that the entire NYT readership also knows.

"But I think we're generally not horrified by the disclosures parents make about their kids, simply because we're not prone to being horrified by any disclosure now."

Which I think has its own problems, but is specifically an issue when it comes to kids, who are being disclosed about without their consent, and also without recourse to tell their own side of the story. The power imbalance is so much greater than in any other overshare situation. The only comparable ones - a doctor talking about a particular patient, a teacher a particular student - aren't allowed.