Is This Tantrum on the Record?
The ground rules for writing about your kids.
Though Pollack has set certain restrictions for himself, he mostly saw my hand-wringing over the ethics of writing about my kids as the result of "the same narcissistic impulse that causes us to write about our families in the first place. Because most people don't care what we write. This isn't The Osbournes. It's not like 50 million people a week are watching." I imagine he has to see it like that to keep blogging after Gawker went after Elijah last year. Here's the spat—Pollack wrote about his son's excellent taste in fine cheese, leading Gawker to ask, "When is it okay to hate a 4-year-old?" I'm not sure I could have handled it. For me, this is the problem with the argument that our online musings about our kids don't really matter. We make them the potential victims of ruthless (if funny) harangues—harangues that, thanks to the bottomless Internet, might be around for a long, long time. Pollack says about his Gawker fight, "At the time it happened, I didn't have the financial option to stop. So instead I had to stage a self-righteous snit." Honest, and also a little heartbreaking.
In the moment, especially if they're young, kids tend to like the attention of being their parents' writing subject, according to the writers I talked to. "They, of course, love it. They love it too much," Michael Lewis says of his daughters. Eli and Simon may be heading in that direction, too. But are our kids pleased because they think we want them to feel that way? Or because they don't know how bothered they'll feel later?
I asked Rosa Brooks, who contributes to Slate's "XX Factor," to weigh in on this. Her mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, sometimes wrote about Brooks and her brother as stock "my children" characters in a column for Time magazine. When she became a teenager, Brooks remembers feeling mixed about her mother's articles. "I was proud of her and slightly tickled to be included, and also of course as an adolescent wildly irritated." She doesn't feel scarred, though, and now she sometimes writes about her own kids in her column for the Los Angeles Times. For now, her ground rules are to never mention her young kids by name or allow any pictures of them to be published. When they get older, Brooks has promised herself that she'll hand veto power over to them.
Which isn't to say that a kid's judgment should stand in for his parents'. In April, my colleague Bonnie Goldstein wrote lovingly and also revealingly for Slate about her son Nate's trials trying to make it on his own after dropping out of college for a time. He's 19, so his consent means a lot more than my 8-year-old's. Nate said yes to the piece before his mother submitted it. He has no regrets. But his reasoning took me aback: He told me he couldn't really imagine a piece of writing that could violate his privacy. Is that adolescence talking, or will he change his mind someday?
In my paranoid moments, I worry that by writing about our kids, we're encouraging them to loosen or lose their own boundaries. Then someday, they'll hurtle toward the vortex that produced the awful, self-destructive oversharing of former Gawker editor Emily Gould, as she related at such length in the New York Times Magazine recently.
I'd like to think, like many of the writers I talked to, that the small revelations I offer about my kids are harmless. But what if they're not? A few weeks ago, after writing about my 5-year-old son's frustrated search for his pre-soccer snacks, I got an e-mail from reader Marc Naimark. "I was just about to post the following to the Fray," he wrote. "Fortunately Emily uses her maiden name. Otherwise she is being cruel level 9 on a scale of 10 to her kid. Stuff on the internet lasts forever, and I'm not sure that 16-year-old Simon is going to be pleased for his friends to learn that he used to scream bloody murder about not finding his friggin' veggie sticks." This gave me pause. Maybe I need new ground rules. Or maybe at some point it will be time to stop. Except not just yet. Last night, I was talking with Eli about his misadventures at recess and thought, ah, good topic.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.