Monday, July 09, 2012

The time Junior peed himself in a tent UPDATED, AND ONCE MORE, AND ONCE MORE STILL

Noooo!!!! Slate is asking parents to send in letters their kids have sent them from sleepaway camp.

The trend in overshare parenting writing will only end when the children begin posting their parents' private business on blogs and social media. I feel as though a commenter somewhere may have made a similar suggestion, but whatever the case, it's the only way.


I was just sent (comment if you wish to take the credit that's rightfully yours) this horrifying - most yet? - example of the genre. NYT commenter DJS, whoever you are, good on you for pointing out that it's not OK, and certainly not brave, to out one's child as mentally ill. To relate, to the NYT audience, the details of the most private things your child has ever confessed to you, as well as further information that emerged during a therapy session. Let me repeat, but this time with more conviction: how is this legal?


The commenters, many at least, are catching on! They're pointing out: 1) that a child this young (9?) is too young to consent to this story being told, 2) that there are major ethical problems with disclosing another person's medical diagnosis, 3) that this child is completely identifiable (more so than usual, even, b/c the author shares a last name with her daughter; Google immediately reveals precisely who this girl is, where she goes to school), 4) that there are so many reasons it would be terrible later in life - middle school, adulthood - to have even innocuous details about your childhood, let alone not-so-innocuous ones, revealed to all, and 5) that while the story of parenting and mental illness is an important one, the story of this particular little girl isn't her mother's - or anyone else's, for that matter - to tell.


You can count on me for a YPIS angle, and here it is: I suspect that part of why there isn't more of a movement to stop parents from writing tell-alls about their kids in national publications is that we-the-readers assume that anyone whose parents are writing for the Times, the Atlantic, whatever, anyone whose parents are not merely journalists but paid to muse on their own lives, is growing up in a well-off, well-educated, privileged household. Which is probably a safe assumption. As YPIS holds, socioeconomic privilege means any problems you do have - and that would include 'my mother wrote a tell-all about my toilet training' - are first-world problems, rich-kid problems, non-problems. Why should we feel bad about the children of Berkeley or brownstone Brooklyn, when (goes YPIS mythology) all kids brought up places other than those two are being raised by neglectful parents who don't give a damn?

Thus the commenter who writes, "I'm glad your daughter is getting the treatment that she needs [...]. I feel worse for all of the children who must be out there with conditions like this without caring parents or access to a plush Park Avenue specialist." Yes, commenter, you've proven yourself a plugged-in, clue-having, class-differences-sensitive, perhaps liberal-arts-educated individual. And well done on correctly identifying that this upper-middle-class family is upper-middle-class, and on pointing out that this is not universal. (I'm only half-sarcastic on this last bit - Styles-ish writing does often address a "we" who take the F train to doctors on Park Ave.)

Meanwhile, I'm not entirely sure a kid with OCD is so privileged to have a parent whose "caring" involves spilling the details of private conversations and therapy sessions to the entire world. Is it better than ignorance or indifference? Inconclusive - untreated mental illness isn't so hot, but parental over-involvement/screwy involvement has been known to make matters worse. What I'd say with confidence is that a psychiatric evaluation in Peoria that isn't offered to a limitless audience sounds a whole lot better than one on the Upper East Side that is.


Moebius Stripper said...

These comments - posted specifically in response to a parent who is horrifed at this kind of disclosure, are...remarkable in the way that they completely deny the child's own role in this drama. Apparently this article is about parenting a child with mental illness, or "families" dealing with same. It has nothing at all to do with an actual mentally ill child.

Growing up, I knew one mentally ill child, now a mentally ill adult. His story is not mine to tell, but suffice it to say that being outed in this way would certainly not have helped him, and could very well have been what would have driven him over the edge.

The comments praising the mother for her bravery in destigmatizing mental illness reminds me of your post a few weeks ago about people who are so very horrified that 11-year-old girls getting waxed that they are willing to subject those 11-year-olds to embarrassment in order to protest beauty rituals.

Moebius Stripper said...

Also, regarding that Slate piece: even leaving aside the violation-of-privacy aspect, how is it that even as journalism is a struggling field, we still have a situation in which Party A is getting paid to get Party B to submit Party C's work for publication?

Phoebe said...

The question of parents writing about "parenting," as though this is not the parenting of specific, identifiable children, is a long-running one here at WWPD. It's an ever-more-popular genre, with different variants. Sometimes the "confession" is limited to information about a child that's within the realm of generic parenting experience but still embarrassing (a boy not making a sports team, say, or a normal-looking daughter poignantly asking if she's pretty), but other times, it's something that could provoke more than just run-of-the-mill humiliation on the part of the child. There are in-between cases, too - a child who is in fact obese being upset about this, or a young kid who's gay and conflicted about that, and who might not be prepared to come out to the world, even by well-meaning parents. Then there are things like, 'let's talk about the time my kid failed out of seventh grade, dealt drugs, and streaked across his middle school.'

I think these confessions, when they involve identifiable kids, are a problem even if what's being confessed is pretty much universal. As one commenter puts it, she's glad her first time buying a bra isn't now Googleable information.

But if it's someone's medical records, basically, posted on the Internet in real time, that crosses a line, even if one thinks the milder forms of this are "cute" and not a big deal. So, to respond to the notion in some of those comments, that this sort of confession is necessary to destigmatize mental illness, and that we'd all be just fine with a parent discussing a child's physical illness... I kind of think no, discussing a physical illness in that way wouldn't be fine, either. Should that information be available to every future employer/date?

An exception might be made for the parents of extremely young children who are terminally ill, or for children so mentally disabled as to assure that there's no chance a) that they'll be Googling themselves, or b) that anyone they ever meet, ever will be in the dark re: their mental disability. Such cases are especially devastating, so parents would especially appreciate hearing one another's stories, but more to the point, the stories themselves are not going to negatively impact the kids.

What I keep coming back to is, parents should imagine how they'd feel if their old-enough-to-type kids posted online about their (that is, the parents') personal details, everything from 'my mom is watching her carb intake so she's hollowing out her bagels lately' to 'my dad's on anti-psychotics.' Even this oh-so-brave overshare parents aren't spilling everything, and probably wouldn't love it if the things they're not sharing were 'bravely' confessed on their behalf.

Phoebe said...

Re: Slate, I think they've correctly assessed that the public's appetite for parenting overshare exceeds the current production from actual journalists.

But one more thing re: the NYT piece and others of its kind - part of what's so unsettling, I think, is that these articles are so self-serving on two levels. First, there's the obvious self-promotional aspect of a writer finding a niche, which is fine and great if, as they say, no children were harmed. But then there's the far creepier self-promotion-as-a-parent, the aspect of this that's about getting validation on incredibly personal and subjective decisions. I found little details, like how this mother calls her daughter "bunny," unnerving, because it really drove home how intimate the daughter had reason to believe this conversation was. I think there may be a mistaken impression that it's somehow feminist to support turning parenting-experience into a commodity by writing about it. It's not - it's just objectionable.

Moebius Stripper said...

I think there may be a mistaken impression that it's somehow feminist to support turning parenting-experience into a commodity by writing about it.

I think that even more than that, there's a mistaken feminist impression along the lines of "historically, women were barred from the public sphere" (true); "parenting has been women's work, historically and even today" (true); and that therefore "parenting should not be confined to the private sphere" (true in certain contexts, and definitely not this one). A lot of parent (mother) bloggers don't seem to be making any money at all from writing about their kids, and so I'm inclined to think that the main impetus for the overshare is community, not money.

Which is a natural thing to want. There IS stigma associated with parenting a mentally ill child, particularly since in children, mental illness is often superficially indistinguishable from bad behaviour (and hence poor parenting). But this speaks to a need for, say, support groups for parents in similar situations. And there's no reason these groups couldn't be online, either in the form of mailing lists, or password-protected blogs or messageboards. Or even non-password protected pseudonymous blogs. It's a combination of laziness and narcissism to instead be soliciting support from the entire internet under one's real name.

Phoebe said...

Oh, I think we're in full agreement re: the feminist argument - you're just better at articulating it.

But I'm not sure it's about "community." You're right that it's not so much about money, but maybe "narcissism" comes closest to it. It's about getting one's voice out there, no matter if it means trampling one's children along the way.

I do think there's a spectrum, though, from mommy-bloggers who aren't savvy enough to realize that their sites are Googleable, all the way up to professional writers with book contracts for which they've promised a tell-all about their parenting. The former probably do just want support, whereas the latter... understand that overshare sells.

CW said...

My mom has written a couple of parenting books. The main one includes anectdotes about me and my siblings that are used to illustrate various points. However, Mom also used incidents from other peoples' kids and changed plenty of unimportant details in order to protect us. She did a nice job, and my sister and I are the only readers who can now pick out the moments from our childhood. So, there is a way to write about serious parenting issues without exposing your children. Of course, that approach wouldn't work for a lurid tell-all book.

Phoebe said...


That approach sounds ideal - and indeed, non-"lurid". I don't think children - as children, or later, as adults - have the right to protest when they recognize themselves in a names-and-details-changed parenting book, any more than they might if their parents wrote fiction in which the characters rang a little too true. The range of human experience should be fair game.

My only objection is to writing that identifies the child/children in question. So I do include instances where a mother is writing in her maiden/never-changed name, and the kid, whose first name is given, has the dad's name, but where it thus takes three rather than two seconds of Googling to figure out who the kid is. But not ones in which this specific kid is ostensibly not the topic at hand.