The Ethical Implications of Parents Writing About Their Kids

Tips for spotting a problematic new genre: parental overshare

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Killer Films

Shortly after the tragedy in Newtown, Liza Long, an "author, musician, and erstwhile classicist," published a viral essay with the provocative title, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother," comparing her own mentally-ill teen son to the alleged Newtown killer, and herself to Lanza's first victim: "A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books," Long wrote, concluding from this and other troubling incidents that her son is likely on his way to opening fire in "a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom."

Long's essay was only the most outlandish version of a popular genre: parental overshare. In July, for example, on a New York Times opinion blog, Beth Boyle Machlan, "at work on a memoir about mothering and mental illness," described her daughter's O.C.D. Despite the lack of violence, Machlan's essay may be more disturbing than Long's—we get an account of the girl's therapy session, and hear Machlan calling her daughter "bunny" and "sweetie." Private scenes the reader should not have had access to.

But with the response to Long's piece, serious public opposition to parents spilling their own children's secrets began to emerge. Another writer, Sarah Kendzior, took issue with Long's discretion:

Over the past few days, we have had a number of calls for 'national conversations'—about guns, about mental health, about safety. We need to have a national conversation about the online privacy of children. Mothers should protect their children, not exploit them for media attention.

The first go at this "national conversation" seemed ill-fated. Kendzior had also made weaker critiques of Long's parenting, diverting attention from the privacy angle. Tensions high, the two made peace so as to avoid a "mommy war." Kendzior, though, did not back down, later arguing, "The greatest threat to children's privacy online does not come from corporations. It comes from parents."

Meanwhile, on the New York Times's parenting blog, Jillian Keenan responded indirectly to Long, thanking her own mother for not publicizing an adolescent outburst. Keenan's plea could not have been more sensible: "Parents should be the first line of defense to protect their children's privacy, but sometimes they aren't," she wrote, blaming the media for publishing "gratuitous material that could damage a child's long-term personal or professional prospects." Yet Keenan's hook was that she herself had once drawn a knife on her mother. She also referred to having gotten her partner's permission to mention him in an article (also in the Times) about her spanking fetish. For some commenters, this diminished her credibility, obscuring her argument.

Still, anyone looking to question the ethics of parental overshare faces a tough audience. The ubiquity of confessional writing has spilled over into confessions that implicate not so much the author as the author's still-underage offspring. Readers are meant to celebrate confessional parenting-writing for its courage, perhaps also because it is a rare creative (sometimes lucrative) outlet for women who identify primarily as mothers. Yet these parents' "courage" involves telling stories not theirs to tell. Confessional writing is about risk. An author telling of her own troubles risks her own reputation and relationships. But an author doing the same about her kid risks primarily his, not hers.

Parental overshare, as I define it, does not refer to parents discussing their kids with friends and family. Private or anonymous communication doesn't count, even if in this day and age, everything could theoretically reach a mass audience. Nor does fiction. Two criteria must be present: First, the children need to be identifiable. That does not necessarily mean full names. The author's full name is plenty, even if the children have a different (i.e. their father's) last name. Next, there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience.

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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