Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On selling out your kids

Phoebe has made her entrance into the Mommy Wars with a defense of children's privacy against overzealous memoirist parents. This is one of the few things about which I agree pretty much completely with Phoebe, possibly because I also share a more general displeasure with gut-spilling as a route to literary fame.  If adults can't be persuaded to keep their innards intact and inside, at least they might be persuaded - by guilt and shame - not to gut their children. Once we start agitating for legislation about this though, I'm out for the count.

And for a limited time only, Phoebe is volunteering to answer every one of your objections, in detail.


Phoebe said...

Oh, we agree on more than that. Have you forgotten cheapness?

Re: legislation, while part of me honestly thinks there oughta be a law, it's difficult to see how that would play out. I'd be content to see a shift in norms. But how would you feel about a law that limited this to discussing children's medical records/doctor's visits?

Miss Self-Important said...

As far as I know, there already ARE laws relating to some of this stuff - FERPA for one thing, which prohibits schools from publicizing your academic records w/o your consent (and even prevents your own parents from accessing them if you're over 18 and deny them permission). There is also a professional standard of medical confidentiality that prevents the psychologist from writing the same piece that the mother did about her kid's OCD, or even talking about his patient's OCD at his own dinner table. And there is, on the other hand, "mandatory reporting," which you'll have encountered if you've ever worked with at-risk kids. These are state laws that require any adult who is told by the child of abusive or dangerous conditions at home to report this to state authorities, whether or not the child wants it to be reported. Notably, however, these are all laws governing the conduct of people outside the family with respect to sensitive information about the family, as a whole.

I suspect that there will be difficulties legislating a wedge between (minor) children and their parents b/c these laws would either require the child to report a parent's misconduct when the child is not himself in danger, or it would require outsiders to report it in the "mandatory reporter" style, and the consequences would be imposed whether or not the child felt harmed by the disclosure. Now, when the kid's being beaten or sexually abused, his desire to protect his family from state intervention may reasonably be thought less relevant than the urgency of getting him out of that situation, so mandatory reporting overrides his preferences or subjective sense of harm. But when the abuse at hand is that his mom is writing about his potty training online? Even if his own preferences aren't mature, should the state really be intervening there? Do you think that being blogged about should meet the threshold of "abuse" that would merit state intervention and familial separation?

I'd prefer to keep state intervention into the family as minimal as possible, and I'm not sure how you could create laws that would avoid that outcome. Parental overshare doesn't seem to me to be crime, or even a legal offense against someone's right's, since the minor child has very few rights not entangled with family privileges. It's just an imprudent and repugnant activity, perhaps on par with childhood bullying.

Phoebe said...

As you say, there are laws preventing a doctor or teacher from providing this info, but not if the disclosure is coming from a parent. But I'm not sure why you think the only way the state could intervene would be to call this "child abuse" and separate the kid from the family. Presumably a doctor can't reveal a named patient's diagnosis, regardless of whether doing so can be proven to have harmed the patient. The issue is a class of speech, not its necessary outcome.

Why, then, couldn't something like libel law (I say "something like" because obviously no such law exists) be a check against this? Why couldn't there be a fine? Why would the punishment need to be separation of parent and child, when there's no reason to think the problem is the parent's behavior with the child? Again, not sure this would be the answer, but it seems the law could address this in a way other than it deals with behavior where the parent is a direct, in-person threat to the child.

Or if you absolutely don't want the law involved, maybe we could advocate for publications not to make this class of information available, i.e. to volunteer not to print articles that reveal the medical (or educational?) records of the underage? This seems easier than asking publications not to print "parental overshare," which is clear in my mind, but less of an obvious category.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that children are always taken away if DCFS gets involved in a family situation. That's an extreme outcome, and I doubt it would be applied to cases of parental overshare. What I mean is that I can't think of a way for the law to get involved except to class this as a kind of child abuse, albeit a minor one perhaps, that wouldn't necessitate family separation. I think any involvement of DCFS in such cases is too much state intervention.

I'm not sure how you'd incorporate this into libel law. The parents are not making false statements about their children, at least so far as we know. And I don't think minors have privacy rights independent of their families. (For example, FERPA doesn't permit you to withhold your school records from your family before you're 18.) I'm not sure how such rights could realistically be enforced against parents, since parents also legitimately need to be permitted to discuss their children's medical and personal histories with certain strangers - doctors, teachers, school administrators, possibly neighbors and anyone in a position to take care of that child (babysitters, friends' parents, etc.) for that child's own safety and well-being. Parents also should not be legally restrained from getting advice about childrearing from others, which may mean admitting that one has a difficult child. Of course, none of that requires disclosing this information to the NYT or any major media outlet.

So I'm not sure how legal prohibitions could be framed to avoid these possible difficulties, but I'm obviously not an expert in this. There may well be feasible ways that I'm overlooking. Ask PG - she's a lawyer, and she has at least one opinion about everything.

I'm also doubtful that the media outlets themselves could be voluntarily constrained this way. I think that adopting journalistic norms preventing editors from publishing this kind of stuff would be good, but I also doubt that newspapers would adhere to such norms except by legal coercion. The history of newspapers voluntarily withholding true but scandalous or tasteless information that might titillate readers is pretty dismal. Rochelle Gurstein's very good book, The Repeal of Reticence, chronicles the 20th C. history of newspapers printing "private" information, and it's not a very heartening one. Newspapers have long hidden behind the questionable claim that "the people have a right to know" and steadfastly refused to consider that they are in fact forming the people's desires with what they elect to print. Women have long been a huge reading market in the US, as I'm sure you know, and if they show any proclivity for reading Mommy Wars crap, media outlets will oblige that proclivity twice over. A more recent example that comes to mind of an effort to restrict what's printed for the sake of the common good - asking media not to publicize the names of mass killers - has clearly met with zero success. So, I'm not hopeful, although I agree that this would be a good change if it could be effected.

Phoebe said...

I must say, the legal angle is not the one I find most interesting. As I see it, one would need to first establish that a right exists that is not currently recognized as existing, and only then sort out how to go about protecting that right. And it's much more straightforward what to do if a doctor spills re: a patient than what to do when a mother tells the Times about her kid's therapy session. This gets us to layer upon layer of never-gonna-happen, and I know this despite no legal expertise whatsoever.

The newspaper one seems more promising. While there is obviously an insatiable demand for this stuff, I'm not convinced pseudonyms would matter that much. Consider advice columns - the ten trillion comments to every Dear Prudence column, etc. This (largely female) segment of the readership craves stories, and my sense is the craving for real-names-attached is more flexible.

Miss Self-Important said...

But would pseudonyms suffice when the author is identified by name? Liza Long used a pseudonym for her son, but as I said then, his real identity is easy to find when hers is so readily available. Advice columns are a good comparison since the writer doesn't have to identify himself in the letter, but could that privilege be extended to actual authors of articles? Emily Yoffe does have to identify herself in that instance. Anonymity is reserved for very sensitive cases in journalism; usually you have to make on the record statements unless doing so would put you at risk. Would we accept that all articles written about children be pseudonymous? It's possible. I'm not sure.

Phoebe said...

"Would we accept that all articles written about children be pseudonymous? It's possible. I'm not sure."

Well, none of this is certain, it's all new territory, but I don't see why this couldn't become the convention.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, I could get behind it. But I do think that, as one of your commenters pointed out, you'll need at least one Tale of Woe about parental overshare from a child victim to persuade people of the damage that this might cause. B/c its offense to my sense of propriety and good taste is probably socially insufficient.

Phoebe said...

Absolutely! The logistics of this are, as I believe I mentioned at WWPD, complicated by the newness of this genre - not of parent-writing, but of parent-writing in the age of Google. Also because much of this would be tough to demonstrate - a job never gotten or a date never asked. But I've done some research in my day, I'm sure I could figure this out.