Thursday, December 27, 2012

And now, the outrage

OK, so while everyone I've shown Jillian Keenan's post about parental overshare to (people who may have been hearing me go on about "dirty laundry" since forever) has either endorsed it/my enthusiasm for it or not said either way, the NYT parenting-blog readers almost uniformly denounce it. This may have something to do with the tendency of readers of a parenting blog to not take to well to the idea that parent-blogging is an inherently problematic enterprise. Here, some of the key points that arise:

-The mental-illness stigma: Whenever this comes up, some will argue that mental illness shouldn't be stigmatized, and that if we ask parents not to write about their children's such illnesses, we're part of the problem. Never mind that the stigmatization of mental illness does exist, this is the world we live in, and it therefore is quite possible that writing about how your child is clinically insane might not only embarrass your child but also impact your child's later life (the potential-employers argument). But we're missing the point, I think, if we look at this as a question of mental health exclusively. A parent also shouldn't be writing a tell-all about a child's physical illness or physicality, period, particularly if it's the sort of thing that impacts future insurability, hireability, marriageability, etc. (Imagine an essay: 'My child's struggle with the giant hairy mole on his back, and the pains he takes to hide it at the beach.' Or: 'My child might look like a boy, but he has ambiguous genitalia.') I might make an exception for parents of children who, due to the severity of whichever condition, will clearly either not live to see whichever article or ever have the mental capacity to do so. But let's focus on the less extreme examples. If you already know that Potential Hire or Potential Spouse X has whichever issue in his past (and different issues would of course matter in different contexts), all things equal you might well go with someone else. It's naive to think that's not how the world works, and it should thus be up to individuals to decide how much of their not-immediately-visible bodily particularities they wish to share. If this is tough to wrap your head around, imagine a 22-year-old author writing an article about a 54-year-old parent's physical illness, without that parent's consent.

-The thing with the knife: Readers agree that then-15-year-old Keenan's having brandished a knife in front of her mother and injured herself with it makes her an untrustworthy source. But they're split over whether the problem is that she, unlike Adam Lanza, was just melodramatic, and therefore she's comparing apples with oranges, or, conversely, that someone who for goodness sake wielded a knife at her mother is telling other people how to live. Clearly both of these can't be true, so let's look at them separately. In the first case, it's the notion that it's different to mommy-blog about teen angst than about teen mental illness. Re: this, see the item above. In the second case, I'm not sure quite what the argument is. Keenan isn't saying that her mother would have been wrong to do anything about her admittedly off behavior, only that her mother would have been wrong to blog about it.

-At least one reader thinks that as a non-parent, Keenan is in no place to judge parents, particularly those of troubled, potentially dangerous kids. This I really don't understand, but I suppose that's because I also don't have children, eh? But if this is an argument about a wrong done to a child, why should it matter if the now-adult child in question has children? More to the point, why does personal stance matter at all here? I never wielded any knives, so am I not qualified to say that I agree with Keenan on this? Keenan does acknowledge that parents of troubled kids have it tough, but it's not as if, if she knew just how tough, as one only could from personal experience, she'd be likely to change her view and think confessional mommy-blogging in these cases was just fine.

-Some readers comment on the ethical dubiousness of overshare in general, including dirty laundry that belongs to one's fully-grown friends and relatives. Also of sharing things that might be upsetting to her own entirely theoretical future children (!) Keenan has, after all, told a story about her mother, and earlier told a fairly racy one involving her fiancé. As someone who writes in the first person, but whose line is drawn somewhere rather more conservative than Keenan's (thus explaining why Dan Savage has never interviewed me on his podcast), I do kind of get this. But as Keenan herself points out, adults have legal recourse if problematic things are written about them, and will often be asked to consent (as her fiancé was) before being written about. And more broadly, adults are not at the mercy of anyone else, the way a child is of his parents. The power balance in that situation is quite unique. And it's as good as meaningless to ask your very young children (11 and eight!) to consent to stuff you share about them online. Both because kids that young don't have the judgement to decide what to put online about themselves, and because they want to please their parents.

-Across many of the comments, there seems to be confusion between a parent's right to vent and a parent's right to vent to a mass audience. Parents of troubled as well as ordinary kids complain about their kids, just as the children of ordinary and troubled parents complain about their parents. The problem comes when children do not feel safe in their own homes, their secrets potential fodder for mass entertainment consumption. Parents totally should whine about their kids, or, if something serious is going on, seek appropriate help. None of this has anything to do with the ridiculous 'awareness-raising' aka self-promotion that is sacrificing one's child's privacy for a mass audience.

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