Tagged Privacy

Why I Decided to Stop Writing About My Children

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

There is a hunger in our culture for true stories from the parenting trenches where life is lived mud-flecked and raw. I’ve written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy. A few months ago I stopped.

I wish I could say that I deeply reflected on the ethics of writing about my children and heroically pivoted myself out of a concern for my character, but here’s what really happened: My father called.

He called me after reading a blog post I had written about my son’s first signs of puberty. It seems an obvious line-crossing that I wrote about such an intimate detail, but I did. At the time I didn’t pause for a split second; I was more than willing to go there. I had been writing and reading extensively about parenting tweens. I knew people might be mildly shocked, but mostly interested.

We live in a break-the-internet arms race of oversharing. And adolescent sexuality is an emergent, fascinating topic, especially for parents who are figuring out how to address difficult questions with their children. For example: I ate up Peggy Orenstein’s marvelous new book, “Girls & Sex,” with a spoon, shocked and upset the whole way through.

But when my dad said, “Elizabeth, are you pausing to deeply consider what you’re writing about?” I wanted to get defensive. I said, “Uh. I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet, Dad,” I said, “Heir to Plath, Sexton and Sharon Olds. And the photographer Sally Mann, if I’m honest, Dad.”

But he said, “I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about my grandson.”

He was a lion for his grandson. I listened. I heard him. His words went to my heart, my maternal heart, which is in equal parts steel and cornmeal mush. I thanked him honestly for his feedback, got off the phone, and cried into my daughter’s stuffed animals, which are very soft and plush and forgiving.

So began my wrestling with my relationship with the Nora Ephron line, “Everything is copy.” Until now it has been my battle cry and artistic excuse for printing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with very blinkered vision. Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy. It’s a new point of view for me in our clickbait culture of confessionalism and parading nakedness.

When I started blogging, my kids were babes in arms, hardly people; they were creatures, mewling, milk-drunk, with eyes so deeply slate they were alien-denim blue.

I used the blog as a live journal to get me through postpartum depression and “the lost years” for me that were “the magic years” for them, when I felt overwhelmed by washing out sippy cups, lurking at the edges of the mommy wars, and co-sleeping and diapering.

Writing made the joys and the hardship of parenting into stories. Stories I could tell. Stories that I considered as one considers a diorama.

I was always the narrator, the main character, even if I was also the storm-tossed heroine, the hot mess in mom jeans who couldn’t get the overalls on her 2-year-old. Or figure out fourth-grade fractions homework. I was working out my issues. My kids were always satellites to the big round-faced moon of me.

I’ve shamed their eating habits in chat rooms. I have Facebooked the things they’ve said. I have skewered them horribly, but also with great interest and affection, as a collector might do to some butterflies.

I think Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids are luminous and transcendent, while others accuse her of child pornography. The lines between art and privacy are blurry. You have to consider what you are doing carefully. And previously I wasn’t.

Sally Mann and I don’t belong in the same sentence. I’ve been a Baltimore mommy-blogger writing about things like head lice. She is a world-class artist. But she and I have done the same thing: publicly disrobed our children.

My children didn’t give me their permission to tell their stories, or strike poses in a waterfall, naked, gorgeous as all get out, and human, with lives ahead of them, as Sally Mann posed hers. And now that I see that, I don’t want to mar my children’s glory and subvert their beginnings for my so-called art.

If I’m going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material, and for that I’m going to have to look more deeply within myself or entirely outside. For inspiration I have turned to writing about nature. The environment. The sea. Things that are bigger than me. I’ve been reading John Muir. I’ve been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Nature is for all to see. Nurture is between me and my kids, off the record.


Elizabeth Bastos lives in Baltimore and writes about urban nature. Follow her at thenaturehood.blogspot.com and on Twitter @elizabethbastos.

Don’t Post About Me on Social Media, Children Say

Photo

Credit Getty Images

Recently, university researchers asked children and parents to describe the rules they thought families should follow related to technology.

In most cases, parents and children agreed — don’t text and drive; don’t be online when someone wants to talk to you. But there was one surprising rule that the children wanted that their parents mentioned far less often: Don’t post anything about me on social media without asking me.

As in, no pictures of them asleep in the back of the car. No posts about their frustration with their homework. That victory picture after the soccer game? Maybe. The frustrated rant about the fight you just had over laundry? No way.

The answers revealed “a really interesting disconnect,” said Alexis Hiniker, a graduate student in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington who led the research. She, along with researchers at the University of Michigan, studied 249 parent-child pairs distributed across 40 states and found that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried. About three times more children than parents thought there should be rules about what parents shared on social media.

Sites like Facebook and Instagram are now baked into the world of today’s families. Many, if not most, new parents post images of their newborn online within an hour of birth, and some parents create social media accounts for the children themselves — often to share photos and news with family, although occasionally in the pursuit of “Instafame” for their fashionably clad, beautifully photographed sons and daughters.

With the first babies of Facebook (which started in 2004) not yet in their teens and the stylish kids of Instagram (which started in 2010) barely in elementary school, families are just beginning to explore the question of how children feel about the digital record of their earliest years. But as this study, although small, suggests, it’s increasingly clear that our children will grow into teenagers and adults who want to control their digital identities.

“As these children come of age, they’re going to be seeing the digital footprint left in their childhood’s wake,” said Stacey Steinberg, a legal skills professor and associate director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “While most of them will be fine, some might take issue with it.”

Some children and teenagers question both past and present sharing. “I really don’t like it when my parents post pictures of me on their social media accounts, especially after finding out that some of my friends follow them,” said Maisy Hoffman, 14, an eighth grader who lives in Manhattan. “I worry more about my dad. He doesn’t always ask if he can post things, so I immediately turn away and ask if he’s going to post it. Or I’ll find out later because my friend saw something of me on his Instagram and I’ll have to ask him to take it down.”

Other parents can also present a problem for the child who prefers to control how she appears online. Wendy Bradford, a mother of three elementary-school aged children in Manhattan, said that when parent chaperones took pictures during a third-grade field trip to the zoo, her daughter “hid when she saw the phones because she didn’t want the pictures to be posted on Facebook with her in them.”

Isabella Aijo, 15, a high school sophomore in Natick, Mass., said, “I definitely know people who have parents who post things they wish weren’t out there. There was a girl in my eighth grade class whose mom opened a YouTube account for her in the fourth grade to show off her singing,” she wrote to me in an email. “Finally, on one of the last months of middle school, a peer played the song in class and almost the entire class laughed hysterically over it.”

Those early posts from parents linger, not just online, but in our children’s memories — and the topics may be things we don’t see as potentially embarrassing. The son of a friend (who asked that I not use her name) still brings up things she wrote about his picky eating when he was younger — years ago, she says.

But that kind of sharing — about food issues, potty training and tantrums — is exactly the kind of sharing that can be valuable. “Children benefit from the community created when parents have the ability to share their stories,” said Ms. Steinberg. Those posts about picky eating might have helped my friend find solutions, or a fresh wellspring of patience for a behavior her child would eventually outgrow.

When parents share those early frustrations, they don’t see themselves as exposing something personal about their children’s lives, but about their own. As a society, says Ms. Steinberg, “we’re going to have to find ways to balance a parent’s right to share their story and a parent’s right to control the upbringing of their child with a child’s right to privacy.

“Parents often intrude on a child’s digital identity, not because they are malicious, but because they haven’t considered the potential reach and the longevity of the digital information that they’re sharing,” said Ms. Steinberg.

In general, said Sarita Schoenebeck, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, who co-authored the research, both children and parents considered positive images, events and news more appropriate to share than negative ones. Parents can consider, too, the searchability and reach of the format (although those are always evolving). A frustrated tweet about a child who won’t eat her cereal because it’s not in a red bowl is a lot less likely to resurface than a YouTube video of the resulting tantrum. Looking for advice or sympathy about a behavioral problem? Skip both the image, and your child’s name, in a post to limit later searches.

At our house, I sometimes see the hesitation in my oldest son, who is 14, when I bring out the camera at a goofy moment, but we have a whole house rule: no sharing images of anyone else without their consent, ever. That trust means I get my candid shots, and he keeps his digital identity, whatever he eventually wants it to be, intact.

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