If you have read our parenting blog before today you might recall that when my three sons were younger they fought until they bled. You might know that on one occasion they upended the table at a restaurant sending our dinners and dishes cascading to the floor. And while that incident still makes me laugh (though doubtful that was my reaction at the time) it begs the question of whether I should have told you at all.
Eleven months ago, Mary Dell and I began writing about our children in Grown and Flown and it made me a little queasy.
I am fascinated by the process of parenting and I felt I had learned a great deal over the past two decades. I hoped that writing would allow me to reflect deeply on the experience. I am fascinated with blogging: I think, I type, and through the miracles of technology, seconds later, you read. But when I combined my reflections on my personal experience of parenting with a medium that has global penetration, that is when I became concerned.
Is it right to write about my children and do I have the right to do so? It is hard not to ask these questions.
So much good comes from the very public discourse of child rearing. Parents who might have felt a particular problem is theirs alone find solace, insight and remedy from those they may never meet but who have walked in their shoes. From other parents and experts we hear cautionary tales and coping strategies. Reading about the exploits of other families in a parenting blog helps us to laugh at ourselves and to reflect on the true joy of ordinary life in moments when it may not feel that way.
But by writing about parenthood we tell the story of our children’s lives and I cannot help but wonder, is it our story to tell?
I’d like to think, like many other writers, that the small revelations I offer about my kids are harmless. But what if they’re not?
Blogging about one’s kids is an industry. There are corporate sponsors, conferences and very public exposure. But it also happens in smaller ways on Facebook and Twitter or even in emails that were meant for only a single set of eyes yet get forwarded on to many more, usually with the best of intentions.
It seems to me that there are two distinct questions here. The first is simple: Can any harm come to my child because of information I have shared online? Have I “overshared,” an almost impossible term to define and, because of that, will my kid be adversely affected? Will his teachers look upon him differently and when he applies to colleges or jobs, will he be encumbered by a digital identity established by his parent?
The second question is far more difficult to answer but in my mind every bit as important. By writing about our children we are creating a public persona for them. We are, in the current parlance, creating their brand. By writing about them, we are telling the world who our children are, thereby usurping one of life’s most important experiences.
Pre-internet and social media, teens and young adults entered the world and established themselves as the people they wanted to be. They examined the values of their families and communities and, through self-reflection, created their adult selves. Teens were not blank slates but when they ventured out on their own, they were not trailed by their parents’ analysis, opinions and photos all shared with the entire planet.
The problem is not only that kids will carry into the world the trail of their parents’ published views – what will eventually be decades of pictures, videos and comments – no, the problem is also that we, as parents, can be wrong about our children. A parent who has written for years about an argumentative or rebellious teen is only expressing one person’s opinion and in a larger context that teen may be neither. The reality may be a rather typical teen and a parent uncomfortable with dissent.
Even when we tell our truth, it may not be their truth. We may see our children as funny or social or intellectual but they may not see themselves that way and may not want the world to view them that way. But when we put our truth out there it inevitably becomes our child’s public story and no matter what we do it is part of their narrative forever.
Some parents have argued that they write about their children only with that child’s consent. Children, of course, cannot legally give consent, but the far scarier issue is that kids cannot begin to imagine the repercussions of what might be seemingly harmless information, and of course, neither can we. We might have guessed that they didn’t want their prom date to know about their potty training. But how can we even begin to guess how our words and images posted years earlier will trail them out into the world?
The question that plagues me is this: Can you imagine what it would have been like as a young person to enter the world, to grab a role on the adult stage, only to find out that your parent has, in great detail, already given the world your introduction?