The Ethical Implications of Parents Writing About Their Kids

Tips for spotting a problematic new genre: parental overshare

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.

Parental overshare does not always deal with tragic circumstances. It ranges from family secrets to lighthearted anecdotes. There are girls whose fashionable mothers want them to lose weight. Boys who need professional help with their homework, or who will never go to Harvard like their old man. Children with messy bedrooms—literal dirty laundry.

Hanna Rosin distinguishes between writing like Long's, which she considers libelous, and "mommy bloggers embarrassing their children." One might also view them as equally problematic, but for different reasons. While serious revelations pose a greater threat to a child's reputation, humiliating stories may be more likely to destroy a parent-child relationship. A child might sympathize with writing about his illness, but not about that time when he was three and wet the bed. And a story of everyday parenting challenges could still reflect poorly on a child down the line. Between two equivalent candidates, who would hire the one who once begged for $600 jeans?

Parental overshare's most obvious flaw is its potential to humiliate. But what if the kid's OK with it? Some authors, Long included, reassure us that their children approve. Yet children are not in a position to veto their guardians' livelihood. Nor do they understand what it means for information to be private. It's generally understood that what kids put online about themselves can hurt them later. How can a child consent to a memoir?

The reader assumes that the parent will do what's best for her child. While the parent may set out to do this, using their own children in the service of a larger argument clouds their ability to self-censor. And with confession can come vanity.

Indeed, it often seems as though what motivates parental overshare isn't so much the potential for a post to go viral as the parenting accolades from strangers. An interviewer said to memoirist Amy Chua, "Perhaps [...] the crucial thing is not how pushy you are as a parent, but how engaged," to which Chua replied, "'I'm so glad you say that!'" Reviews of John Schwartz's memoir insist upon how "understanding, empathetic, caring, and, well, perfect" Schwartz and his wife clearly are.

Online commenters and reviewers often ignore that parents may misjudge their own parenting. More upsettingly, they do not question the acceptability of parents mining kids' lives for material. Perhaps they assume these kids are if anything privileged to have such attentive (and often well-connected) parents.

Where, then, should a parent-writer draw the line? The simplest way is to ask if a given anecdote would be appropriate if its subject were not your child. Would you publish that essay about your colleague or sibling? About a friend's kid? If you consider the power dynamics between parent and child; the childhood secrets only a parent can know; and the trust children have in their parents, you see why parental overshare, however well-intentioned, is unethical.