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Are We Violating Our Children’s Privacy, Too?

May 19th, 2010 by Melinda Blau

After actress/comedian Julia Sweeney’s did this little bit at a T.E.D. conference, she decided to “hang up my mouth,” as she put it in her blog.   She would stop telling stories about her personal life — well, mainly her daughter.

The video reminded me of how hard it was in “my day” to have that dreaded sex talk.  Some things never change.  But for younger-generation mothers, the Internet adds a whole new dimension to just about every aspect of parenting.

The monologue is fun and we can all identify, but the back story is even more interesting.  It shows how we see ourselves in a different mirror once we become mothers.  And it’s a cautionary tale about privacy.  For Sweeney, who has been making fun of herself and everyone around her for decades, her daughter was “the tipping point” in her decision not to be as public about her own life. As she writes in her blog.

When I got home from the conference I realized that if Mulan saw my story (or a fellow student did) she could be very embarrassed.  I was mortified and could not believe that I hadn’t considered this before.  Mulan looks good in the story – a curious, smart nine year old.  But the whole topic is embarrassing to a girl her age.
I was really struck deeply about what I do onstage and the fact that I have a child.  I hated telling stories about my mother because I knew that it could be hurtful but I did it anyway because I loved getting the laugh, I loved getting to vent, and I felt I had the right somehow to talk about her onstage.  I guess I thought there was some sort of unwritten code that made parents fair game.  I actually feel that’s true and if Mulan grows up and tells stories about me, no matter how unflattering, I will gladly accept that as her right.  (I’ll be in the front row, no – wait!  More lovingly, I will not be anywhere near the place!)
But the other way around, me telling stories about her… That’s different.

Mothers, fair game; children, not.  Unfair, but a time honored tradition–also exaggerated by the Internet.  A woman my age recently told me how upset she was that her friend’s children think nothing of making fun of their mother on Facebook.

But back to the children.  I wonder what the kids of mommy bloggers will think about their mothers documenting their lives in such exquisite detail.  Once they’re old enough to read, they”ll also know how their mothers felt, including the moments of disappointment and desperation.   Is that good or bad?

This is not just an Internet phenomenon.  Children have always made for good stories.  I’ve written many articles about mine, often not bothering to conceal their identity.  I didn’t think I did it that much — until my son Jeremy, then 10, asked, “Mom, if you didn’t have us, what would you have to write about?”

That didn’t stop me of course.  What I did stop was telling my kids when I wrote about them, especially if it was a sensitive topic.  This couldn’t happen today, of course, because every word we write lingers in cyberspace.   In any case, that strategy wasn’t foolproof either.  In my son’s freshman year of college, his Introductory Psych professor handed him an article in which a 15-year-old boy–coincidentally named Jeremy–travels cross-country without his parents’ permission.  “Is this you?” she asked.  And of course it was.

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2 Responses to “Are We Violating Our Children’s Privacy, Too?”

  1. […] to hang up my mouth.”  (I was alerted to Julia Sweeney’s blog by another wonderful blogger, Melinda Blau, a writer who, for all I know, is thinking about writing a book exactly like the one […]

  2. Melinda Blau says:

    Thanks for your comment “Momma Loshen.” Even if you don’t tell your kids you’re writing about them, they can discover it on their own, especially nowadays. But even in the pre-Internet days, we ran that risk. Once, when my son was a freshman in college, his Psych 101 teacher showed him an article entitled, “When Good Kids Go Bad” and asked, “Is this your mother?” She guessed as much because one of the anecdotes was about the author’s son whose name just happened to be the same as her student’s! I had written about his ilicit cross-country trip to an “anarchist convention” and my success in tracking him down (I am, after all, a researcher). The anecdote was designed to make a point at the end of the piece: Parents have to rein in kids before they “go bad.” When I wrote the story, I figured, why tell my son. I knew he wouldn’t like it. As you can imagine, he didn’t!
    He has since forgiven me.

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